Homeopathic 'vaccine pills' should be withdrawn, says regulator
A homeopathic pharmacy endorsed by Prince Charles and the Queen has been told to stop advertising sugar pills labelled as childhood vaccines.
The government's medicines regulator stepped in after an investigation by BBC Inside Out South West.
It found a number of homeopathic products on sale at specialist retailer Ainsworths labelled as vaccines or bearing the name of a childhood illness.
The programme also found evidence the company's owner Anthony Pinkus was prepared to recommend homeopathic pills to parents as an alternative to the whooping cough vaccination.
London-based Ainsworths has two Royal Warrants for supplying homeopathic products. Prince Charles is known to be a supporter of homeopathy despite the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness beyond a placebo.
Among the products found on offer were vials of pills labelled Meningitis Vac Hib, Measles Vaccine, Rubella Vaccine, Pertussin and Pertussis Vaccine. Pertussis is the scientific name for whooping cough.
The UK has recently been experiencing the worst outbreak of whooping cough since the 1980s. Last year, 13 babies died of the disease.
Homeopathy is a 200-year-old system of treatment that uses very highly diluted substances which are given orally in the belief that they will stimulate the body's self-healing mechanism.
Critics say any active ingredient is diluted so many times the final product, dripped onto a sugar pill, is highly unlikely to contain a single molecule of it.
But homeopathy has ardent supporters who say it has helped them get better and insist it should be available on the NHS.
In 2007, current health secretary Jeremy Hunt signed a parliamentary early-day motion praising the "positive contribution" of homeopathic hospitals in the NHS.
However, Professor Edzard Ernst, an expert on complementary medicine, said: "Homeopaths say some sort of "energy" stimulates the body to heal itself. That is a very nice theory but it's not supported by any clinical evidence and the clinical trials don't support it either.
"One of these products is to protect or to treat meningitis. That is a condition that is potentially fatal. Ineffective treatment for fatal disease is life-threatening."
Mr Pinkus told the programme he did not accept his labelling was misleading because it was clear the products were "in no sense medical pharmaceutical drugs".
He also said he did not recommend his products for the prevention or treatment of childhood illnesses.
But when Inside Out wrote to him posing as the parent of an unvaccinated child and asking for advice about whooping cough prevention, he recommended several of his homeopathic pills including Pertussin.
He said he could not make a claim for its success and said using it was a personal choice but when asked if the child should be vaccinated said he would use Pertussin "alone".
Mr Pinkus added if the child was vaccinated as a "compromise", the Pertussin pills would "offset the side effects".
According to experts there is no evidence homeopathic pills can protect against or treat any infectious disease, or treat any side effects of vaccination.
Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol Medical School, said: "I'm very concerned because what I know about vaccines tells me these cannot possibly be effective at preventing infections.
"The use of the word vaccine is fundamentally misleading. Not only doctors but also parents understand something quite clear when they use the word vaccine. People are being misled in a way that is absolutely unacceptable."
In 2011 Mr Pinkus, a pharmacist, was censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for promoting homeopathic pills for tropical diseases. The General Pharmaceutical Council also investigated but let him off saying he had taken "remedial action".
It has also emerged a complaint about the sale of "vaccines" by Ainsworths was made to the government's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) more than a year ago by the Nightingale Collaboration, a group which campaigns for evidence-based medicine.
The MHRA has now told Ainsworths to stop advertising a number of products. It has also taken action against another homeopathic pharmacy, Helios, and sent a warning letter to a Jersey-based firm Homeoforce. Both were selling similar products.
When contacted by the BBC, Helios said it puts a disclaimer on its labels pointing out they are not a proven preventative or treatment.
Homeoforce said products marked "vaccines" were to protect against side effects of vaccines rather than prevent illness. But the experts the BBC spoke to said there was no good evidence they could do either.
An MHRA spokesman said: "It's vital that people are not misled about the effectiveness of homeopathic products. We have taken action to ensure that Ainsworths and Helios are no longer advertising their homeopathic products as alternative treatments to proven, conventional vaccines such as those for measles, meningitis or whooping cough."
However, last week Inside Out was still able to buy a product labelled "Pertussin Vac" from Ainsworths' London shop.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes - where three out of 10 five-year-olds are not fully immunised - has written to the health secretary.
She said: "I do not think that any product for which there is no evidence whatsoever that it can confer any benefit should be labelled a vaccine. I don't think there's any excuse for that."
See more on Inside Out on BBC One South West and the HD Channel on Monday at 19:30 GMT and after that on the iPlayer.