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Homeopathy -- India's traditional system of medicine

India is a unique country of great cultural diversity and social plurality. People talk in different languages in different places, and practice different religions, traditions and customs. Such diversity is also visible in the practice of medicine and its acceptance by the people. Even though India is the seat of one of the richest ancient medical practices, ayurveda, a large number of people follow homeopathy.

Origins

The word homeopathy was coined by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1807. In India, homeopathy was introduced around 1810 by Frenchman John Hoingberger, a disciple of Hahnemann who visited Calcutta (now Kolkata).   

     People found a reflection of their beliefs and cultures in homeopathy's philosophy and principles. In the beginning, the system was practiced by amateurs in civil and military services. Hindus then recognized the "law of similars," which underpins homeopathy, as a treatment principle. In the Bhagwat Purana, written in Sanskrit, homoeopathy took root and flourished.

Behind homeopathy

Homeopathy's law of similars can be described as "like cures like." In other words, a substance that causes symptoms of any disease when taken in large doses can be used in small quantities to treat the same symptoms. For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness. According to this principle, when coffee is made into a homeopathic medicine, it could be used to treat people that struggle to sleep.

     This concept is also used in conventional medicine. Cutting onions causes eyes to water. The likely remedy for a cold or allergies that cause runny noses and eyes to water is to treat with Allium cepa, which is made from onions. This principle of "like cures like" dates back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece. In its current form, the rule has been used for more than 200 years.

     In homeopathic medicines, substances are used in ultra-high dilutions that makes them nontoxic. These medicines are prepared by specialist pharmacies using a careful process of dilution and succussion (vigorous agitation). Science has not been able to explain the mechanisms that make the ultra-high dilution in homeopathy work. However, research has suggested that such substances have biological effects.

     Some data support the claim that homeopathic medicine becomes more effective with each additional dilution-succussion step, and that this increases the safety of the medicine. During the production of a homeopathic medicine, dilution and agitation steps cause interactions between the substance used for treatment and a water-alcohol mix. This creates tiny nanostructures that are present after the process of dilution.

     Ideally, homeopathic treatment is tailored to each individual. In practicing homeopathy, the physician selects medicines based on the complete history profile of a patient, including their lifestyle, emotional and mental states and physical condition. A single medicine should cover all symptoms that afflict the patient. Physicians first prescribe small doses of the medicine and observe its effect on the patient. If it has results, infinitesimal doses are prescribed after.

Myths and realities

Homeopathy is among the most controversial of alternative medical therapies. The solutions are often so diluted that, in many cases, not a single molecule of the active compound remains in the completed substance. Scientists have been arguing about the therapeutic value of homeopathy. Some contend that homeopathy works because it has a placebo effect, or that patients simply get well over time. Double-blind studies involving homeopathic treatment have yielded variable and conflicting results. The scientific community criticizes homeopathy as unethical quackery. But some clinical trials have produced positive results.

Its popularity and education

The Indian government has recognized homeopathy as a medicine and set up the Central Council of Homeopathy (CCH) to regulate its education and practice. At present, homeopathy is the third most popular method of medical treatment in India, after allopathy and ayurveda. There are over 200,000 registered homeopathic doctors, with around 12,000 more joining the profession every year.

     Homoeopathy in India has been fully integrated into the public health system and its practice is legal. In 1978, a Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy was established. Uniform Education in Homoeopathy was enforced by the Indian government in 1983. A large number of hospitals, teaching institutions and registered practitioners are under the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) system. According to recent statistics, there are 3,360 hospitals with 68,155 beds, 21,765 dispensaries, 485 colleges and 725,568 practitioners under AYUSH in India.

     The Indian government has written standards for Good Manufacturing Practices in homeopathy, and there are more than 600 makers of drugs using these methods. A considerable amount of homeopathic drugs are now imported from Germany. According to 2010 estimate, the size of the homeopathic market in India was about 26 billion Indian rupees ($419 million), with demand growing at an annual rate of 25-30%. 

Tejraj M. Aminabhavi is an All India Council for Education Emeritus Fellow.

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