When Gail Gutierrez’s 13-month-old son Daniel was found to have a double ear infection, the Santa Monica woman left her pediatrician’s office with the requisite prescription for antibiotics.
But Gutierrez had no intention of filling it. The prescription was only meant as a backup in case Daniel didn’t respond to this brew: pulsatilla, an oral homeopathic remedy; the herb echinacea, and Mullin oil, an herbal eardrop treatment.
Seven days later, when Gutierrez returned to the pediatrician for a follow-up exam, her son’s infection had cleared up.
“I’ve always used homeopathic remedies,” says Gutierrez, 27. “Daniel’s never had antibiotics.”
Homeopathy, a 200-year-old practice involving the use of minute doses of pharmaceutical agents, has long been big on the Westside, where some embrace alternative living as religion.
Chain drug stores here offer homeopathic remedies over-the-counter and several pharmacies specialize in homeopathic remedies and herbs.
Increasingly, however, the alternative healing method is being used on children--to treat maladies ranging from teething pain and colic to upper respiratory infections.
Though homeopathic remedies themselves are considered harmless--they are exempt from federal Food and Drug Administration regulations--the trend toward pediatric homeopathy makes some local physicians nervous.
Potentially, they warn, parents who use homeopathy might allow a child’s cold or ear infection to steadily worsen, perhaps eventually leading to pneumonia or loss of hearing.
Another concern is that a small number of hard-core homeopathy adherents refuse to have their children vaccinated out of concern that vaccines might be harmful. That, experts say, could expose children to outbreaks of life-threatening diseases.
Despite such worries, however, the demand for homeopathic treatment is rising--and a growing number of physicians are taking steps to meet it. These doctors see at least some merit to homeopathy, and some of them credit patients for making them aware of it.
“Half of my practice turns to homeopathy,” said Dr. Jay Gordon, a pediatrician with offices in Santa Monica and Malibu who describes himself as self-taught in homeopathy.
“I really started listening to my patients who felt antibiotics and tubes didn’t always work (for ear infections) and who didn’t like antibiotics’ side effects. And bacteria have developed a resistance to antibiotics. It is frightening. We need to try different methods to treat children.”
Homeopathy (from the Greek Homios, for similar, and pathos, for suffering) is based on the belief that a substance that causes certain symptoms can cure those symptoms when administered in microdoses.
For example, a tincture of belladonna, derived from a highly poisonous, fever-inducing plant called deadly nightshade, is used to fight fever.
The remedies are intended to act on the same principle that allergy shots do, selectively stimulating the immune system.
Homeopathy has become a booming business nationwide, experts say. According to U.S. homeopathic manufacturers, it generates $250 million in annual sales and is growing at a rate of 25% a year.
Critics liken homeopathic remedies to placebos and faith healing. The compounds, they assert, are so diluted that virtually no molecules from the original substance are left in them, rendering them impotent.
But homeopathic practitioners contend that molecules from the compounds they use imprint a kind of permanent energy pattern on the surrounding water molecules. Those water molecules, they say, become activated and more powerful when shaken vigorously, producing a highly effective medicine.
And homeopathy appears to be gaining some legitimacy in the United States, as it already has in Europe. A report on the first clinical trial of homeopathy by a U.S. doctor was published this month in “Pediatrics,” a respected medical journal.
Dr. Jennifer Jacobs, a physician who uses only homeopathy in her practice in Evergreen, Wash., reported on a study she conducted using homeopathy in conjunction with oral rehydration to treat diarrhea in children, the leading cause of death for children worldwide. The study showed a decrease in diarrhea of about 15%.
A repeat study is now under way in Nepal, said Jacobs, who also hopes to do a study on the use of homeopathy in the treatment of ear infections.
Meanwhile, the alternative medicines branch of the National Institutes of Health earlier this year gave the first federal grant to study the effectiveness of homeopathy. The recipient was Michael Goldstein, a UCLA researcher and professor of public health.
“Supposedly, there were more applications for this grant than ever in the history of NIH, which shows there is a lot of public interest in it,” said Goldstein, who plans to track the treatment of 130 adult patients in the care of five Los Angeles homeopathic practitioners for six months.
“We found that people who’ve repeatedly (sought) mainstream medicine but have been dissatisfied, then turn to alternative medicine.”
Homeopathy has been popular for at least 20 years on the Westside, where the evidence of alternative health care includes underwater birthing centers, burgeoning midwife practices and the College of Homeopathy, which is in Santa Monica.
In Santa Monica alone, there are an estimated 70 homeopathic practitioners, called homeopaths or homeopathics, who have received diplomas from homeopathy schools in the United States or abroad. Of the five Los Angeles-area pharmacies that specialize in the sale of homeopathic medicines, four are located on the Westside.
And such chain drug stores as Thrifty and Sav-on are scrambling to accommodate consumers, offering popular homeopathic remedies for children’s problems, including teething, colic, bed-wetting and coughs.
Local pediatricians say that in the last three years there has been a decided increase in the number of parents asking that their children be treated homeopathically.
The interest has grown as parents have learned about homeopathy at birthing centers, mother support groups, natural parenting groups, food co-ops or just in parent-to-parent conversations.
With competition among doctors and hospitals especially fierce on the Westside, the local medical community is going to great lengths to meet the demand. Some medical doctors, for instance, have attended homeopathic colleges.
Among them is Dr. Lauren Feder, a medical doctor who attended the British Institute of Homeopathy three years ago.
“Parents that I see are saying that they aren’t getting what they need from allopathic medicine, that they don’t want another antibiotic,” said Feder, whose Santa Monica practice serves both children and adults.
“Allopathic medicine helps the body suppress symptoms and blames outside causes rather than an internal weakening of the individual system for the problem. As homeopaths, we treat constitutional weaknesses and symptoms as a whole and stimulate the immune system to fight off (disease and infection).”
That approach appeals to people such as Barbara Olinger of Venice, a mother of two who discovered homeopathy five years ago through a mother support group that grew out of the Venice Ocean Park Food Co-op on Brooks Avenue.
Armed with stacks of books on homeopathy and container after container of tiny white homeopathic pills in her medicine cabinet, she has put the practice to use.
While on a camping trip recently with parents and children from the co-op, she passed out homeopathic pills derived from poison ivy. Though there was a great deal of poison ivy, she said, none of the children got rashes.
“Mothers in the group used (homeopathic remedies) and it kind of became a learn-as-you go kind of thing,” said Olinger, who plugs homeopathy at support groups that she runs for mothers at Santa Monica’s YWCA.
Like many who treat their children with homeopathic remedies, however, Olinger is open to using conventional medicine.
“What I like about (homeopathic medicine) is it has no side effects, like the diaper rashes, digestive problems and diarrhea that come with antibiotics,” she said.
“In fact, I just cleared up an ear infection my son had with homeopathy. But I am not totally against acetaminophen and antibiotics, because I had pneumonia, and when homeopathy didn’t work, I used antibiotics.”
Leslie Neal learned about homeopathy from a friend who handed her a book about it after hearing Neal complain about a sore throat that wasn’t responding to antibiotics.
Neal has treated her 25-month-old son, Luka, successfully with homeopathy for ear and upper respiratory infections. But when Luka got the flu, she visited her pediatrician, who told her to keep a close eye on her son.
After waking from sleep, Luka’s left eye area was swollen to the size of a golf ball. Neal’s pediatrician told her to rush him to the hospital.
“He had periorbital cellulitis, and it can travel to the brain and kill them,” said Neal, who lives in Santa Monica. “I said, ‘Give him the antibiotics now.’ He was in the hospital for two days.”
Neal said she is wary of antibiotics because she took so much tetracycline for throat infections over the years that she has become “immune to antibiotics.” The drug also turned her teeth a dull gray, she said, prompting her to spend $10,000 for dental cosmetics.
“The reason I am attracted to homeopathy is so I am not dependent on something that is destructive to your immune system,” Neal said. “It also gives you some control over your own health. But I am kind of middle-of-the-road, half in Western medicine and half in alternative medicine.”
Others are more rigid users of pediatric homeopathy. They tend to use homeopathic practitioners who take a holistic approach to treatment.
These homeopathics typically spend an hour or more with parents, learning about the child’s symptoms and asking a seemingly bizarre range of other questions: Does she fear barking dogs? Does she wake up happy from her naps? Does she like sweet, sour or spicy foods? What does her sweat smell like?
Homeopathics say this allows them to treat a child’s mind and body based on their unique set of symptoms and their constitution.
Some of the most orthodox adherents of homeopathy shun Western medical treatment almost altogether--and draw the ire of physicians who believe they unnecessarily place their children at risk.
Dr. Robert Hamilton, a Santa Monica pediatrician and assistant clinical professor at UCLA Medical School, acknowledges that there are medical applications for homeopathy. But he warns that there is also potential for harm.
“What if a child has a high fever and is taken to a homeopath and he has meningitis,” Hamilton said. “That child might be diagnosed (too late), which can cause visual or neurological damage.”
Another concern is ear infections, the second-leading ailment affecting children.
“About 90% of kids will get over their ear infections by doing nothing,” said Dr. Harvey Karp, a Santa Monica pediatrician who practices conventional medicine but also advises parents on homeopathic remedies.
“Loss of hearing is rare and primarily caused from chronic fluid in the ear, not from acute infection. The caveat we give to patients, whether they use antibiotics or homeopathics, is to watch it for three days and if it doesn’t get better, (come back to the doctor.)”
Most physicians--even many who see a role for homeopathy--frown on parents and homeopathics who refuse to vaccinate children because of fears that the potential for harmful side effects from vaccines outweighs the benefits of the inoculations.