Homeopathy Plus “misleading and deceptive” on whooping cough vaccine

The Federal Court of Australia has found that Homeopathy Plus! Australia P/L and Fran Sheffield, who runs the organisation, “engaged in conduct that was misleading and deceptive or was likely to mislead and deceive” when it declared on its website that the currently available vaccine against whooping cough was unreliable and ineffective.

In a judgement handed down on December 22, the Court found that, in contrast to a series of articles published on the site, “in fact, the [whooping cough] vaccine is effective in treating a significant majority of people who are exposed to the whooping cough infection”.

The judgement also found that Homeopathy Plus and Sheffield made “false or misleading representations that the homeopathic treatments are of a particular standard or quality”, in contravention of Australian Consumer Law.

The case was brought against Homeopathy Plus and Sheffield by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Sheffield won the Australian Skeptics Bent Spoon in 2012 for the same claims as were the subject of the Federal Court decision.

Sheffield, who originated a petition to the UN to use homeopathy in the Liberian Ebola outbreak, has previously made claims that homeopathy can treat domestic abuse behaviour.

The court decision adds: “There is no reasonable basis, in the sense of an adequate foundation, in medical science to enable the [Respondents] to state that homeopathic treatments are safe and effective as an alternative to the [vaccine publicly available in Australia] for the prevention of whooping cough.

“The [publicly available vaccine] is the only treatment currently approved for the use and accepted by medical practitioners in Australia for the prevention of whooping cough.”

There was no immediate response by Sheffield or Homeopathy Plus, but in an earlier statement she had written in response to the case, which had been underway in various forms since 2012, that: “It is my firm belief that it had nothing to do with ‘deceptive and misleading information’ or ‘trade and commerce’ but was the culmination of an 8-year struggle by certain groups to remove information on homeoprophylaxis (homeopathy’s ability to protect against epidemic disease) from our website and newsletters and out of the public eye.”

The matter is now listed for directions on February 4, 2015, in order to set a timetable for any further evidence on the question of penalties and submissions. The ACCC says it is seeking injunctions and pecuniary penalties, in addition to the declarations already made by the Court.