Field of Science

Oscillo – what? Homeopathic flu “cures” and dead ducks

Oscillococcinum sounds like medicine. And if you saw this package in a store next to all the other cold and flu remedies, you might be tempted to give it a try. It looks just like a box of anthistamines or other real medicines. With flu season coming soon, you might want to look at this box more closely before you buy it.

You can buy oscillococinum at Walgreen’s, Target, Amazon.com, and many other places. At Walgreen’s, one of the largest pharmacy chains in the U.S., it’s listed under “Cough and Cold” where it sells for $9.99 (a savings of $4.50!) for 6 doses.

It sounds like medicine, but it’s not. The front of the box says (in small print) that it’s “homeopathic medicine,” which isn’t medicine at all. In fact, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill, which is why the product can advertise that it has “no side effects” and “no drug interactions.”

But in much larger print, the package says “Flu-like Symptoms”, followed by a list of symptoms: “Feeling run-down, hadaches, body aches, chills, fever.” Anyone might be fooled into thinking this product is supposed to treat these conditions. If you go to the manufacturer’s (Boiron) website, they make the explicit claim that it “Temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as feeling run down, headache, body aches, chills and fever.” The Walgreen’s website says the same thing.

What’s in Oscillococcinum, and how can its producer get away with these claims?

Oscillo contains “Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK.” Don’t be fooled by the Latin – it just means extract from the heart and liver of a duck. Yes, they kill ducks to make this stuff. The manufacturer then dilutes it to 200C, which in homeopath-speak means that 1 gram of extract is diluted to one part in 10400. Yes, that’s 10 raised to the power 400. Wow! The entire known universe has far fewer than 10400 molecules. If you filled the entire solar system with water, and mixed in one molecule of duck liver, it would be much more concentrated than this stuff. Oscillo is so diluted that there is essentially zero chance that even a single molecule of the original extract is in the product. The package does say that sugar is added to the pills, and that’s all they are: sugar pills.

The idea that infinitely diluted substances can cure disease is a type of magical thinking, and it’s at the heart of homeopathy, whose proponents believe that the more dilute something is, the more powerful its effects. This bit of nonsense goes against basic principles of chemistry and physics, but no matter: homeopaths continue to insist on it.

And I shouldn’t forget to mention that there’s not a whit of evidence that extracts made from the heart and liver of a duck can cure the flu. Nope, not a chance.

The French-based manufacturer, Boiron, and the U.S. stores selling Oscillo can get away with this because it’s not a drug at all – it’s a supplement. Supplements are basically unregulated in the U.S., thanks to laws passed decades ago, some of them specifically designed to protect homeopaths. As long as you don’t claim that your product can treat a specific illness, you can sell it.

The box itself doesn’t say that Oscillococcinum cures the flu, but the product’s manufacturers have been making this claim on their website. Some of them have stepped over the line: the FDA sent a warning letter to one homeopathic marketer this past summer telling them that Oscillo “has not been approved or otherwise authorized by FDA for use in the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment , or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus” and requesting that they “immediately cease marketing unapproved or unauthorized products for the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment, or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus.”

Unfortunately, the FDA only steps in when the claims get particularly outrageous, or when (as here) they involve a high-profile disease such as avian flu. The purveyors of Oscillo can simply modify their packaging (and websites) slightly and go right ahead misleading the public.

So if you want to waste $10 on 6 sugar pills, go ahead. But at least try find a product that doesn’t require dead ducks.

Further reading: see Orac’s recent post on this same topic here.

17 comments:

  1. Well at that dilution all you need is one duck.

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  2. Using logic to understand homeopathy is a futile gesture, but I thought the homeopathic superstition was that a very diluted solution would protect against what was being diluted. So this (assuming that it would work, which it wouldn't) would protect against ducks themselves and not viruses that might be in the ducks? It doesn't even make sense according to their own superstitions.

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  3. Isn't the sugar they use in those pills typically lactose? Does homeopathy have trouble making inroads where much of the populace is lactose intolerant?

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  4. One of the ideas of homoepathy may be that a disease or condition may be cured by a very small amount of a substance that strangely can cause the condition or disease itself.

    This may sound nuts, except when you consider "orthodox" treatments like:

    a small amount of a pathogen to induce immunity to the disease caused by the same or similar pathogen,

    treatment of hyperactivity in children with a drug that is actually a stimulant,

    treatment of allergies with exposure to small doses of the allergic material itself.

    The duck stuff noted above may be worthless--however, if you think the idea of homeopathy is worthless, note that orthodox medicine may be using a suspiciously similar approach in many patients.

    --RJ

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  5. @RJ

    The difference is that all those things you mentioned have a plausible mechanism of action. Homeopathy does not.

    Small quantities of a substance having a large effect is plausable and not surprising at all (it doesn't take much tetrodotoxin to kill a human, for example). Poorly-defined and uncharacterized "energy fields" in the water having the effect described by homeopaths doesn't have a lot going for it.

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  6. Dana:

    I'm not sure homeopaths in general subscribe to the "energy fields" in water idea that you mentioned.

    Of course, I think it's fair to say that things like quantum physics, entanglement, and tunneling all seem implausible as well.

    A lot of scientific ideas may seem poorly defined initially. Ideas like a virus can cause cancer in an animal and the bacterial genesis of ulcers may seem obviously wrong or stupid--in the moment they are publicized--and then those same ideas may lead to Nobel prizes (See bios of Nobel Laureates Peyton Rous, Robin Warren, and Barry Marshall).

    In Rous' situation, it may have taken over 50 years to go from idea to Nobel prize. Maybe people first thought his idea was stupid or poorly-defined.

    --RJ

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  7. Anon: you are demonstrating a classic logical fallacy. The fact that some implausible ideas in the past turned out to be correct does not make it more likely that homeopathy has any basis in reality. It is sometimes called the Galileo gambit, or the Galileo fallacy, and it goes like this: they didn't believe Galileo and he was right; therefore I am right.

    This argument can be applied to any wrongheaded notion, but it doesn't prove that such notions have any merit.

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  8. Steve, I think you may have misunderstood what was being said in the previous comment.

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  9. I don't think the Galileo fallacy is being used in the comment above.

    Remember Steve: stating a person is using faulty logic is not proof thereof.

    some guy with a computer

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  10. Anon: the reference to Barry Marshall is exactly the Galileo fallacy. I know Barry Marshall and have worked with him - he's the scientist who discovered that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori causes ulcers. The medical community was indeed somewhat incredulous about his claims for a while, because they believed (erroneously) that no bacteria could survive in the stomach. Dr. Marshall was right, though, and this led to dramatic and effective cures for stomach ulcers.
    The commenter is suggesting that homeopathic ideas will some day be shown to be valid, and he's using the Galileo gambit to support his argument. Seems pretty clear to me.

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  11. The "Galileo gambit" I assume would refer to a person who says something like "everyone disagrees with me, therefore I must be right."

    And I think we can agree that the Galileo gambit, if I've got it right, is not logic.

    However, improper use of the label "Galileo gambit" might go something like this:

    Your ideas are new or implausible, and they violate the existing science paradigm, therefore they must be wrong, even stupid, and anyone who defends those ideas are using the "Galileo gambit."

    (By the way, am I correct the idea that ulcers may be caused by H Pylori was in existence for a LONG, LONG (over a century) time before a Nobel prize was awarded for work relating to it?)

    Implausibility, in and of itself, may often be worthless as a way to criticize a scientific theory.

    If someone said your clock runs slower when you go faster, the idea might sound crazy or just stupid or implausible,

    until you do the math.

    What I think is not always helpful is just labeling an idea as implausible and then stopping the inquiry there. If it's implausible, there's no need to villify or libel the investigator--just nicely explain why the idea is wrong, and here's the important part: with evidence.

    Just saying something like: "your ideas are implausible and therefore you're an idiot"

    is not necessarily a a good starting point.


    I think the comment about homeopathy makes the point that regular medicine already uses treatments that look similar to homeopathy techniques.

    I mean treating a kid with hyperactivity with a small amount of a drug that is a stimulant does sound implausible as a treatment and a lot like or identical to homeopathy.

    And yet isn't that exactly what Ritalin is?

    If you simply dismiss the earlier comment as "Galileo gambit" then you may simply be using a slogan in lieu of reasoning.

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  12. The idea of water having a memory may not be completely impossible. Many seemingly homogeneous substances may actually be "doped"; in other words an impurity is added that changes the characteristics of the non-doped material.

    Even water itself is not necessarily uniform. There are at least three types of hydrogen (ie "regular", deuterium, tritium), two of which lead to water which is in a real sense different from "regular" water.

    (When water is comprised of deuterium, it's density is actually higher than water. Regular ice floats. Deuterium based ice sinks. Go figure.)

    Just hypothesizing, but if you were somehow, through the dilution process, able to concentrate heavy water, even a little bit, it might then look like the dilution process left a "footprint" in the water.

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  13. Is this a serious suggestion? Besides being wildly implausible, it is quite amusing that someone would suggest that deuterium can treat influenza.

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  14. I think the comment was an attempt to show an analogy.

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  15. "the FDA sent a warning letter to one homeopathic marketer this past summer telling them that Oscillo “has not been approved or otherwise authorized by FDA for use in the diagnosis"

    WHOOP_DEE_DOO
    The FDA also allowed 60,000 people to die from Vioxx then fast tracked the Gardasil vaccine while taking away patient rights for compensation..

    Yeah, the FDA are here to save us!!

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  16. It would be amusing, albeit expensive, to buy 100 doses of the stuff, and immediately ingest them all, and then comment on how great it works at 199C. :-)

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