Flu season now approaches and a visit to your local pharmacy will yield a product called oscillococcinum that is advertised to treat the symptoms of flu.
But what is in this product and where did it come from?
Not as old as many people think, the concept of oscillococcinum comes to us from a French army surgeon by the name of Joseph Roy, who looked under his microscope in the 1920s and found small bacteria in the blood of flu victims that he named “oscillococci”.
He also found these in many other patients with other illnesses and came to believe that this bacterium was responsible for the symptoms of TB, rheumatism, measles, cancer as well as the flu.
For reasons that are unclear, he felt that the most powerful source of these bacteria was from the liver and heart of the Barbary duck; therefore, by the rules of homeopathy, a universal remedy for all these conditions can be made from diluting these bacteria many millions of times.
To manufacture the homeopathic remedy oscillococcinum (as sold in your pharmacy), one takes a piece of liver and heart from said Barbary duck, mix them with sugar and pancreatic juices and let them sit in a glass jar for 40 days.
After that, take a small amount of what remains and dilute it over and over again until there is no longer any possibility of there being any original material left in the solution, put a drop on a sugar pill and then sell the result for about $2/pill.
We have come a long way since the 1920s. We now know that there is no such thing as “oscillococci” and, in fact, they have never been seen by any other scientist.
We know that many of the conditions that Dr. Roy thought oscillococci caused are either not caused by infections or are caused by viruses that Dr. Roy would have been unable to see with his microscope.
We also know that for homeopathy to work, we would need to discard much of what we presently understand about chemistry, physics and medicine.
Yet the product is still out there, with millions of dollars in sales, often to people who have no idea of the background of the product but purchase it with the expectation that it will help them, as it is stocked in their local pharmacy, alongside medications that actually contain an active ingredient.
A year ago, while working in the emergency department, a father brought his two-year-old daughter in to see me. He said he wouldn’t have brought her in but he had given her medication for the flu and it hadn’t worked.
I asked to see it and he showed me the bottle of homeopathic remedy. He had spent more money on it than he would have on a bottle of acetaminophen, which would have actually treated her fever and aches.
It was difficult for me to explain how he had expected a product that would help his child and ended up with a dilute solution of duck heart and liver.
As a physician and skeptic, I am well aware of the huge amounts of alternative medicines out there and that many people turn to them when conventional medicine fails them.
For the most part, these products can provide a placebo effect, though I would urge people to buy the cheapest placebo they can.
But please spare your children the placebo effect and the duck liver.
IAN MITCHELL, MD