Flu Symptoms? Try Duck
Why sales of homeopathic products are soaring today
Somewhere near Lyon, France, sometime this year, officials from the French pharmaceutical firm Boiron will slaughter a solitary duck and extract its heart and liver--not to appease the gods but to fight the flu. The organs will be used to make an over-the-counter flu medicine, called Oscillococcinum, that will be sold around the world. In a monetary sense, this single French duck may be the most valuable animal on the planet, as an extract of its heart and liver form the sole "active ingredient" in a flu remedy that is expected to generate sales of $20 million or more. (For duck parts, that easily beats out foie gras in terms of return on investment.)
How can Boiron claim that one duck will benefit so many sick people? Because Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy, meaning that its active ingredients are so diluted that they are virtually nonexistent in the final preparation. In every gram of the medication, according to the list of ingredients on the package, there are 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For those without a chemistry degree, that means that Oscillococcinum is 100 percent sugar.
As with other homeopathic drugs, Oscillococcinum has been subjected to little outside scientific testing of its effectiveness in fighting flu symptoms. Yet it can be found in many U.S. pharmacies alongside conventional cold and flu medicines, remedies that have had to undergo testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Partly because many drug chains now display homeopathic medicines next to conventional remedies, and partly because many homeopathic drug makers are now packaging their products to look like other cold, flu, and sinus remedies, homeopathic products are booming. Sales have grown about 20 percent a year during the past few years, reaching roughly $200 million in 1995.
Hands off. It is this placement and marketing of homeopathic products that has critics up in arms. "The rationale is [the FDA] doesn't want to waste its regulatory energy on products that don't hurt people directly," says Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist who has petitioned the FDA to hold homeopathic products to the same standard as other drugs. "But what's going on is fraud."
For homeopathic drug makers, such disrespect comes with the territory. Homeopathy is a 200-year-old therapy in which medications are formulated by what's known as the "law of infinitesimals," meaning that the smaller the dose, the more potent the cure. The theory is that minute doses of a substance will boost the body's immune system; the curative powers are said to come from the ability to induce symptoms in a healthy person that are similar to those produced by the illness, thus counteracting it. Promoters liken the effect to that of a vaccine. In the case of Oscillococcinum, the heart and liver of the duck naturally contain flu virus antibodies.
But the extreme dilution of the active ingredients in homeopathic medicines may seem absurd to nonbelievers. Most remedies are diluted down to "30X," or a strength of 1/10 multiplied by itself 30 times. That means one drop of the active substance is diluted in nine drops of alcohol or water; then a drop of the new solution is further diluted by nine drops, and so on, 30 times. It has been estimated that a 30X dilution is the equivalent of one drop in a container more than 50 times the size of thearth.