Health

Foreign aid doctors want Canada to stop sending homeopaths to Honduras

Physicians who go on aid missions abroad want the federal government to review its funding of a program that sends homeopaths to Honduras because of the potential harm to local people.

Federal government stands by $350K aid to homeopaths who claim to prevent tropical diseases

Canadian homeopaths on a mission to Honduras claim their water-based remedies can prevent infectious diseases such as Chagas, dengue and chikungunya. Their work is funded by a grant from Global Affairs Canada. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Physicians who go on aid missions abroad want the federal government to review its funding of a program that sends homeopaths to Honduras because of the potential harm to local people.

Since 2015, Quebec-based Terre Sans Frontières (TSF) has been spending $70,000 annually in aid money from Global Affairs Canada to dispatch more than a dozen volunteer homeopaths to Honduras. 

The money runs out in 2020. But Dr. Zain Chagla wants the federal government to review the homeopath program which claims to prevent and treat Chagas disease among other serious infections.

"I really do believe this is a wake-up call," he said. 

Chagla, who has done tropical medicine training in East Africa and is a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the homeopaths' claims about treating Chagas disease are potentially harmful.

"There is no evidence that what they're using is anything more than diluted water. It's a placebo, and we're talking about a disease that can again kill and cause a significant amount of scarring down the line," he said.

Dr Zain Chagla, a tropical disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the homeopaths' claims about treating Chagas disease are potentially harmful. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Homeopathy is rejected by modern medicine because it defies basic premises of science.

Among its principles — water has memory, and the more a substance is diluted, the more powerful it becomes. 

Under the Honduran Health Code of 1966, homeopathy, naturopathy and "other occupations considered to be harmful or useless" were banned until the code was rewritten in 1994.

The Montreal naturopath who leads the Honduran missions, Carla Marcelis, referred to homeopathy as "a beautiful way to use the body's own healing system to come to healing" in a promotional video about the Honduras missions. 

The video also shows how Marcelis's team has instructed locals about how homeopathic remedies can prevent serious viral infections from dengue, influenza and Chikungunya.

Marcelis is in Honduras, and CBC News has been unable to make contact with her.

Members of the mission include other faculty, students and graduates of the Montreal Institute of Classical Homeopathy which also claims homeopathy has been used to "cure individuals with autism."  

Global Affairs cites WHO comment

After our initial story, CBC News contacted the office of the federal minister responsible for international development for an interview but was denied.

Instead spokesperson Maegan Graveline reaffirmed Global Affairs's support for the homeopaths in an email, "The World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization in its 2014–2023 strategy encourage the integration of traditional medicine and complementary medicine, including homeopathy, into national health systems". 

It's quackery.— Dr. Benjamin Klein

Pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Klein said the government should not be funding homeopathic aid. 

"It's quackery," he said.

Klein is a member of Canada-Honduras Children's Health Initiative which sends teams to the Central American country to treat disabled children. The group receives no financial assistance from Global Affairs Canada.

He has seen the promotional video posted by Terre Sans Frontières which shows homeopaths putting drops in children's mouths.

"I find that video gave me the willies. I mean, these are vulnerable people who are being duped."

Klein said the work by the homeopaths is unethical as they present themselves as medical professionals.

"From a Canadian point of view, it's also very concerning that you know our reputation might be compromised and people might look on our team with suspicion."

On its website, Global Affairs Canada states the total budget of its ongoing multi-year projects is $38 billion. The projects include basic health care, nutrition, infectious disease control and emergency relief.

A spokesperson said the Honduras project is the only one that includes homeopathy.

About the Author

Vik Adhopia is a senior reporter with the Health Unit at CBC News. He joined CBC National Radio News in Toronto in 1995 and then began his coast-to-coast-to-coast journalistic odyssey, reporting from Iqaluit, Prince George, B.C., Vancouver, St. John's, N.L., and finally back to Toronto again.

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