Located at 135 Chimalpopoca street in Mexico City, in the Obrera neighborhood, you will find one of the greatest symbols of the pseudoscientific trend that landed with the arrival of Spanish doctors in the mid-1800s still thrives. More than a century and a half after those doctors introduced homeopathy in the country, the National Homeopathic Hospital (HNH) remains standing.
Although this medical institution is unique in the continent, throughout the entire region alternative medicine has a considerable degree of acceptance, as could be seen during the pandemic, when governments such as Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela promoted unproven remedies scientifically to fight covid-19.
“Homeopathy is very popular in Latin America because it receives great official support,” says Mexican infectologist Alejandro Macías, former national commissioner for the prevention and control of influenza AH1N. “But only in Mexico do we have a state hospital,” says Xavier Tello, a Mexican surgeon, and health policy advisor.
The National Homeopathic Hospital was founded in 1893 by order of Porfirio Díaz, two years before the president incorporated this pseudoscience into the health system and education by decree. Today it continues to operate and is the only one in the capital that provides external consultation seven days a week. The clinic, which occupies a two-story building with 28 offices, has more than a dozen medical services and specialties in general surgery, internal medicine, and obstetrics. In addition, it has its own homeopathic pharmacy located on the ground floor of the building.
“The worst thing is that it is financed with public money and has the absolute support of the authorities that govern us,” says Tello, who has been critical of the high acceptance that homeopathy has in the country for years. Although the National Homeopathic Hospital was created in 1893 as a private institution, in 1943 it joined the Ministry of Health and Assistance and today it is part of the Ministry of Health.
But the hospital is not the only Mexican institution that supports pseudosciences with public funds. “Mexico has a formal career to study homeopathy. A degree with a professional license that accredits the ability to practice as a homeopath”, explains Tello.
The National School of Medicine and Homeopathy, belonging to the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), draws on the budget of the Ministry of Public Education (SEP), has more than 4,000 students, and serves 40,000 patients a year. “We offer a mixed training in allopathy and homeopathy”, explains its director, Rodolfo Luna Reséndiz, and assures: “At School, we think that all medicines are complementary and alternative, and that they depend on the subject’s own ability to heal themselves.” According to the head of the institution, “homeopathy has become a last resort solution for those multi-treated patients who, after trying antibiotics, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery, could not be cured. Until they came to a homeopath to regain health.
Integrated into the area of Medical Biological Sciences of the institution, the career takes the title of Homeopathic Surgeon and Midwife, terms that for Tello “constitute an oxymoron.” Unlike the vast majority of countries, where the teaching of homeopathy is carried out in postgraduate courses, in Mexico, it is constituted as a specialty. In addition to the National School of Medicine and Homeopathy, there is the Free School of Homeopathy AC. Acupuncture and other techniques of Traditional Chinese Medicine are taught in both educational centers.
Government support for studies not supported by science has been eloquent during the pandemic. From the beginning of the health crisis caused by covid-19, for example, the Directorate of Traditional Medicine and Intercultural Development (DMTDI), dependent on the Ministry of Health, developed a prevention and care strategy against the virus based solely on alternative therapies such as herbalism, homeopathy, and acupuncture.
“It must be made clear that homeopathy does not have any scientific evidence and that it should be considered as pseudoscience. It is a trap to say that it is complementary! ”, denounces Macías, who assures that in Mexico there are many alternative treatments: ozone therapy specialists who work in conventional hospitals throughout the Republic.
For Tello, the country goes against the current of Europe, “where the authorities no longer want to pay for pseudoscience.” The surgeon mentions the example of Spain, whose Government, in addition to ordering the regulation of homeopathy in 2018, requested the European Commission to change the directive on the use of homeopathic products because the regulations consider a risk to the health of citizens (request that was rejected by Brussels). “And France stopped financing homeopathy by reimbursing the payment of medicines,” he adds. In his opinion, “while some countries are increasingly inflexible against homeopathic practice, in Mexico pseudoscience figures more prominently in the programs of the Ministry of Health.”
“For two six-year terms, the Government of Mexico City has been promoting alternative medicine, but the impulse that the current administration is giving it is unprecedented,” says Martín Bonfil Olivera, chemist and academic at the General Directorate for the Disclosure of the Science of UNAM. At the beginning of this year, the Government of Mexico City announced the construction of the Specialized Center for Integrative Medicine (CEMI), through which it guarantees “the right of those who seek their health in alternative medicine.”
“This administration wants homeopathy and so-called traditional medicine to be part of the regulated medical process. But it is that the scientific method and clinical pharmacology do not apply in pseudosciences ”, explains the chemist. “To date, there is not a single well-conducted study that shows that homeopathy has a clinical benefit. And it is not a personal opinion, but rather represents the expert consensus of the world medical and scientific community ”, he exclaims.
One of the arguments that are often used to minimize the potential harmful effect of homeopathy is that, although it is not scientifically validated, it is ultimately harmless. But Bonfil believes that this statement carries great danger. “There is abundant evidence that practices, when they are not useless, can be counterproductive, either by causing direct harm, for example, herbal treatments that can be toxic, or indirectly, abandoning useful medical treatments in favor of such alternative or traditional practices” he assures. For his part, Tello warns that there are many cases of “cancer patients or patients with chronic diseases who turn away from their treatments to embrace pseudoscientific alternatives with fatal consequences.”. In Macías’ opinion, although homeopathy alone does not pose any threat because it is made only from sugar and can only cause the placebo effect, the risks are greater than the benefits.
The placebo effect: the positive psychological impact on health of a substance that has no therapeutic action, is another of the points in question of pseudotherapies. The director of the Homeopathic School, Luna Reséndiz, defends that “all medicine is actually subject to the placebo effect and the positive and active relationship that the patient has. The doctor himself becomes the placebo. I always say that half of my patients should be cured just by looking at me. If one as a doctor does not have that ability to act as a placebo, it is better not to dedicate himself to medicine! ”, Says the homeopath.
Although it comes from Europe, in Mexico the homeopathic takes on a different character from that which operates on the other side of the ocean. “It is important to make a distinction between the alternative remedies that come from the United States and Europe – and that support a multimillion-dollar industry – and the traditional ones, such as those that my grandmother sold when she was a child in a homeopathic pharmacy,” explains Tello. “If in other countries the homeopathic industry is a lobby that generates millions of income, the Mexican industry does not justify or support these gurus or industrialized products. Here prevails, above all, the homeopathy of the little bottle and of the chochitos, which only contain alcohol and sugar ”, he emphasizes.
According to the scientific advisor, different anti-scientific currents converge in Mexico. “We are the champions of alternative therapies because this country amalgamates everything: the practices that come from abroad with such misleading names as biomagnestism or ozone therapy, the sugar pearls soaked in alcohol from the doctor’s offices, the clean ones and the Santeria”. The latter is more typical of magical Mexico that runs through the labyrinthine corridors of the Sonora market, where remedies for discomfort or migraine are presented in bottles with the labeling of natural oils, and the disease, whether it be cancer or a “bad de air ”, is about consulting the astral charts, going to shamans or praying to Saint Jude;
“We have not managed to create an opposition movement against pseudosciences,” laments Bonfil. According to Macías, “medical associations and colleges in Latin America fear getting involved in these cases because there is usually a virulent reaction. But I believe that those medical organizations that seek evidence for the practice of medicine should have more weight and continually speak out against the misuse of public resources, such as the National Homeopathic Hospital, in addition to warning society of the dangers of this type of therapies.”
“On the other hand, the official regulatory mechanisms are not working. How are you going to regulate a homeopathic medicine whose concentrations are not known? ”, Denounces Bonfil. Available on their website, the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risks (Cofepris) publishes the sanitary registries of medicines differentiating in different lists the allopathic, herbal, homeopathic, and vitamin. “The regulatory body that is so demanding to approve new molecules is the same one that accredits herbalism and homeopathy,” says Tello and criticizes that “the fact that there are no solid pronouncements from the National Academy of Medicine, from the committees Congress or from the specialized groups of the Ministry of Health to analyze the problem and make firm decisions, it takes away a lot of seriousness and credibility from their role ”.
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