Diarrhea in infants and young kids: Oral rehydration and homeopathy

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Acute diarrhea in an infant or small child can cause dangerous dehydration. The resulting loss of fluids and salts kills 300 to 500 American children and lands over 200,000 in the hospital each year. In recent years, there has been a change in medical advice about the prevention of dehydration. As for the diarrhea, which is remarkably resistant to successful treatment, a new study shows that homeopathic treatment, an alternative medical practice, produces significant improvement.

Oral Rehydration
To prevent dehydration, parents frequently choose the wrong home remedies like fruit juice, water, sports drinks (e.g., Gatorade), or Jello, all of which can only make things worse. The best choice for severe diarrhea is an oral electrolyte solution sold over-the-counter under such brand names as Pedialyte, Rehydralyte, and Ricelyte. This advice comes from such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oral electrolyte solutions are regarded as the best choice because they offer the right amounts of water, salt, and sugar needed to replace the essential fluids lost during a bout of diarrhea.

"We pediatricians are adamantly against the use of over-the-counter antidiarrheal agents (e.g., Lomotil*, Kaopectate), particularly in infants and young children, because they can mask the signs of very significant dehydration and illness," said Kem E. Templeton, M.D., in a telephone interview.

Dr. Templeton, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, Indianapolis, explained a change in professional thinking about the feeding of infants and children with diarrhea.

"Pediatricians used to advise clear liquids, and diluting down to a quarter or half strength and then working up to full strength the next day," explained Dr. Templeton. "But now, in milder cases, we recommend just continuing normal feedings and giving the soy and lactose-free formulas to children with long-standing diarrhea where a doctor would have concerns about a secondary lactose deficiency. The rehydration products like Ricelyte, Pedialyte, and Rehydralyte, are given in the more severe cases where there's concern about dehydration. The medications, like Lomotil and Kaopectate, are to be avoided completely."

Homeopathy for Diarrhea
While oral rehydration effectively prevents deaths from dehydration, it does not shorten the duration nor decrease the amount of diarrhea. A study published last month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that homeopathic treatment can significantly decrease childhood diarrhea. The study involved 81 children, aged six months to five years, in Leon, Nicaragua.

The decision to investigate homeopathy was based on the fact that acute diarrhea is the leading cause of pediatric deaths and complications worldwide. In many parts of the world, particularly Europe, Asia, and Latin America, homeopathy is often used to treat acute diarrhea, according to the investigators, Dr. Jennifer Jacobs of the University of Washington at Seattle and colleagues. On the other hand, dangerously ineffective standard drugs are also frequently administered to children with acute diarrhea. "Inappropriate use of antibiotics for this illness is widespread in the developing countries," wrote Dr. Jacobs and colleagues.

Nontoxic and Accessible
Homeopathy's appeal, especially for the treatment of children, stems from the fact that it's nontoxic and accessible. (In the U.S., Homeopathic remedies are sold over-the-counter at most health food stores and at an increasing number of pharmacies.) The system of medicine, which was developed in 19th century Germany by Samuel Hahnemann, is based on the principle that "like cures like."

Treatment involves minute doses of a substance, be it animal, plant, or mineral, which would, in large doses, produce symptoms of the disease being treated. According to homeopathic theory, small doses stimulate the body's own natural healing forces. There is no scientific explanation for how the treatment works, though controlled studies have verified efficacy for a variety of non-life threatening illnesses. (See HealthFacts, April 1991.)

The choice of treatment, usually given as tiny white pills to be dissolved under the tongue or as a tincture, is individualized. This is a departure from the standard medical approach, whereby people with the same illness usually get the same treatment. Additionally, homeopathic remedies are difficult to assess in a standard clinical trial, which demands that study participants be given uniform doses of a drug.

The new study allowed for individualized treatment. The children were randomly assigned to receive either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo. Those in the treatment group received one of 18 different homeopathic remedies normally prescribed for acute diarrhea. Choice was determined according to each child's specific symptoms, for example, the appearance of the stool and/or the presence of abdominal pain. As is consistent with homeopathy, the state of mind also influences the choice of remedy (for example, whether the child is lethargic or quarrelsome).

The children were also given the standard oral rehydration treatments and followed daily for five days. A statistically significant decrease (15%) in the duration of diarrhea was found in the group given homeopathic treatment. The investigators noted that homeopathic treatment could lead to a significant reduction in complications, a finding that merits further research.

Resources
National Center for Homeopathy, 801 No. Fairfax St., #306, Alexandria, VA 22314 (703) 548-7790. Send $5 for an information packet that includes information about homeopathy, a directory of practitioners in U.S. and Canada, a list of resources, and study groups.

Homeopathic Educational Services, 2124 Kittredge St., Berkeley, CA 94704 (510) 649-0294. A mail order business offering books, tapes, remedies, computer software, and a national directory of practitioners ($5). Will send a free catalog.

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