How to catch malaria

One of the best ways I know is to follow the advice of a homeopath. But one such source has been at least partly spiked, the infamous Neal’s Yard Remedies. Many of you will know about the BBC South West TV sting, which resulted in embarrassing footage of an interview and the withdrawal of the product Malaria Officinalis from the market. I can do no better than to refer you to the excellent Quackometer for the details of the story, although I can’t resist reproducing here the following weasel words from Neal’s Yard:

Neal’s Yard Remedies has not advertised or sold the remedy, Malaria Officinalis 30c, as a prevention for Malaria. It has been supplied on request by practitioners working in Neal’s Yard Remedies stores, and in fact, practitioners have been trained to always explain that the remedy should not be considered as a guarantee of prevention of malaria. The name of the remedy is based on its Latin name and not on its claim to cure or prevent an ailment.

This actually isn’t true, they supplied it to various people who walked into the shop. Anyway, my main purpose here is to enlarge on the role of our esteemed guardian of public health the MHRA. I emailed the MHRA press office to ask about action it had taken. You can read the news release about the episode here. I got a reply quite quickly:

No further action is planned against Neal’s Yard in respect of the homoeopathic malaria product as the product was removed immediately from the market place. The MHRA has no powers to levy fines. The decision on whether or not to pursue a case in the criminal courts would depend on a number of factors including the nature and severity of the offence and the amount of harm the product had caused.

This seemed a bit lenient to me, so I pointed out these key parts of their own news release:

This product was clearly intended to be viewed as a treatment or preventive for malaria, which is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. We regard the promotion of an unauthorised, self-medicating product for such a serious condition to be potentially harmful to public health and misleading.

……it was an offence to sell, supply or to advertise this product which had not been authorised.
To my old fashioned mind, an offence requires a penalty. Neal’s Yard has presumably made money by selling this product, at a clear risk to public health, but they are not even required to pay up what they conned out of the public. So I had one last go at the MHRA, with this result:

Regulatory action taken by the MHRA can be in various forms. In this particular case we have taken formal regulatory action to remove a product from the marketplace thereby protecting public health. As the company has complied further action at this point of time does not seem appropriate. Not every breach of medicines legislation results in criminal prosecution particularly where immediate compliance has been achieved.

Now I am rather more sympathetic to the MHRA’s position than you might think. Most people don’t know how it is funded, and probably assume that as an executive agency of the Department of Health it is publicly funded. It isn’t. It gets nothing from government, because it is funded 100% by user fees. The fees come from (a) product licence applications, and (b) inspections, mostly the former. Anyone wanting to market a product with health care claims has to have a product licence, issued by the MHRA if it approves a dossier submitted. There are very big fees for this service. More recently, as a result of EU legislation, member state regulatory authorities have to carry out inspections of organisations applying for licences, and there are big fees for those inspections as well. So not only do the applicants pay fees to have their data assessed, they also get inspected to ensure they are not fiddling the data and are doing everything right. And they have to pay for the privilege twice over.
I think you may see my point here, which is that the MHRA is funded by those who choose to obey the law. There are no funds for dealing with those who choose not to, because they don’t pay any fees. In the case of Neal’s Yard Remedies, the MHRA only acted because it was embarrassed into it by a TV programme. In case you have been wondering why ludicrous health claims are made in every high street in the land with impunity, you now know. This morally bankrupt government has no interest in enabling the MHRA to uphold truth and ethics in retail health care because it is more desperate for votes than it has ever been, and 70% of the population rather likes to be misled about alternative medicine.
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6 Responses

  1. Good post. Neal’s Yard certainly aren’t alone in this, but the jokers claiming homeopathy can cure and/or prevent AIDS/malaria/cancer are a disgrace and should certainly be challenged.

    “To my old fashioned mind, an offence requires a penalty. Neal’s Yard has presumably made money by selling this product […]”
    Indeed – compare and contrast with Airborne in the US. They settled a lawsuit for $23.3million for falsely advertising their product for colds, apparently.

    Oh, and thank you by the way – you’ve just taught me a few things about MHRA funding I feel I should have already known. Cheers, jdc.

  2. Thanks jdc. I did think that, cringe-making as the interview with the Neal’s Yard director was, the interviewer didn’t really press a key point. There was all this appalling flannel about no one treatment offering 100% protection. I would have asked, “OK, Malarone offers 98% protection. What % does Malaria Officinalis provide?”

  3. Ditto, that was useful information about MHRA funding and I shall try to be more sympathetic to them in that respect. But, it does leave an open question that we don’t really seem to have any funded body that is capable/willing to enforce penalties for abuse of the public trust. ASA, excellent judgments, no penalties. Trading Standards are overwhelmed. MHRA, likewise and few powers.

  4. I too tried to establish what the MHRA would do in this particular case, and also wanted to know what action they would consider for other homeopathy outlets that sold the same “product”. (Actually all the products are the same but that is by the by). I got this reply:

    The decision on whether or not to pursue a case in the criminal courts would depend on a number of factors including the nature and severity of the offence and the amount of harm the product had caused. The fact that the product was removed from the marketplace is also a factor. The legislation which the MHRA administers relates to medicinal products, Susan Curtis’s book is therefore not subject to our control. A claim made for a product in a book would be a relevant factor in determining whether or not that product fell within the definition of a medicinal product.

    I am checking to see whether the products sold by Ainsworths and Helios have the appropriate registrations under medicines legislation. If they do not or are in breach of their registration the MHRA will take regulatory action.

    Yours sincerely

    David Carter
    Manager, Medicines Borderline Section

    Hopefully he will follow through with the last point. I for one am unsure what “having the appropriate registrations” means. Probably as long as the products don’t specifically claim to “cure” malaria they will be allowed to say what they like on the label. Perhaps claiming they can help you lose weight (as part of a calorie-controlled diet) would be allowed.

  5. “The appropriate registrations” means product licences. Homeopathic products can now apply for licences for `mild, self-limiting conditions’ if they submit basically a load of gobbledegook which the MHRA will accept as `evidence’. Well done for chasing them on this and I’ll be very interested in any further response.

  6. im already ready for replying your questions !!!!!!!!!!!

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