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.