Why China’s traditional medicine boom is dangerous

Information provided for interest only. Always consult your GP/MD or practitioner regarding any health issues or treatment.

Any references here to treat or treatment are confined to the article or research as presented.

If you have any queries about this then Herbs and Helpers will be happy to clarify verbally.

Why China’s traditional medicine boom is dangerous

Postby herbsandhelpers » Mon Sep 04, 2017 11:04 pm

Why China’s traditional medicine boom is dangerous

FANG YUAN gazes around his crowded shop and says happily that business is booming. He has a reliable supplier in Russia and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are queuing up to buy what he sells: antlers. Tangles of them lie in huge meshes on the floor. Thousands more, sliced into discs, fill glass boxes. They are used to treat breast disease in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The shop looks a bit like a Scottish baronial hall. Deer-head trophies gaze down from the walls, as does a red-fronted gazelle with black horns like scimitars. “I don’t sell those,” he says hastily. “Endangered list.”

Mr Fang is a trader at the world’s largest market for TCM, a system of diagnosis and treatment that goes back 2,500 years. The scale of the business is staggering. The small town where the market is located, Bozhou, is three hours drive from the nearest railway station. Yet the main market (pictured) is the size of a football stadium. Mr Fang is one of almost 10,000 traders—four times as many as there are shops in the colossal Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

They sell every medicinal ingredient imaginable. There are chips of agarwood, smoke from which is said to clean the lungs. There are dried frogs, gekkos and deer penis which, dissolved in alcohol, supposedly aids recovery from athletic injuries. And there are boxes of Tibetan caterpillar fungus or “the Viagra of the Himalayas”, a gram of which can sell for more than the same weight of gold. This is the market that sets prices for Chinese herbal medicine throughout the country. Before 9am its sampling room is overflowing with wholesale buyers.

The market in Bozhou is both a symbol of an extraordinary boom in TCM, and a consequence of it. The number of hospitals offering TCM in the country of its birth (either by itself or in combination with regular medicine) grew from roughly 2,500 in 2003 to 4,000 at the end of 2015. Since 2011 the number of licensed practitioners has increased almost 50% to 452,000. Around 60,000 TCM medicines have been approved by the government’s food and drug regulator. These account for almost a third of China’s pharmaceutical market, the world’s second largest. In 2015 patients made 910m visits to TCM hospitals and doctors, which, the government said, accounted for 16% of total medical care, up from 14% in 2011.

It has been a stunning resurgence for a practice that was rejected as superstitious after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. TCM is still regarded with deep suspicion by Western-trained doctors and scientists. It has developed partly because of huge demand for preventive medicines that people believe will help avoid the need for more expensive treatment in hospital. And for some, acquiring the costliest TCM products such as caterpillar fungus has become a status symbol. “In the past few years,” says Li Ning of Kang Mei Medicine, a large health-care company, “there has been wider recognition [of TCM] because people have more money in their pocket and care more about their well-being.”

TCM has also benefited from the attention paid to it by Xi Jinping, China’s president. Mr Xi calls it “the gem of Chinese traditional science” and says he uses it. “TCM is in its golden age,” he claims. He urges practitioners to “push for TCM to step onto the world stage”. Since 2012, the year Mr Xi came to power, the Communist Party has been insisting that traditional medicine be made equal in status to what China calls “Western medicine” (ie, the modern form). Since then, the government has issued a stream of plans, policies and instructions aiming to make it readily available to everyone in China by 2020.

More doses of one’s own medicine

Early in 2016 the government published a blueprint for developing TCM over the next 15 years. Traditional medicine, it said, should have equal status in law with modern medicine; it should also be regulated like other types. A “white paper” issued at the end of last year said TCM would play a big role in reforming the health-care system because of its relatively low cost.

Then, in July, came China’s first TCM law, which lays down safety standards for TCM drugs and the ingredients that go into them. It imposes controls on farms which grow medicinal herbs (banning certain fertilisers, for instance) and on medical manufacturers which produce TCM pills. It also loosens some professional requirements. In the past, TCM doctors had to qualify as conventional doctors first and then be licensed for traditional medicine. The new law makes it possible to become a licensed TCM doctor by passing local exams in practical skills and getting recommendations from two others with licences. Some health professionals worry that this opens the door to more quackery.

Its proponents respond that TCM can improve both public health and the health-care system. Traditional medicine relies on herbal and other natural remedies, not expensive diagnostic machines. According to the white paper, average inpatient expenses per visit at public TCM hospitals were 24% lower than at general public hospitals; outpatient expenses were 12% lower. If TCM is as effective as Western medicine—a big if—then it would appear to be an efficient means of improving health.

If only there were proof

But evidence that TCM works is scanty. Clinical trials in scientific journals have reported some examples of effective TCM treatments, for example against migraines and obesity. They have found some cases where TCM works well in combination with Western medicine, for example, in treating schizophrenia. However, the overall record is poor.

America’s National Institutes of Health looked at 70 systematic reviews of TCM treatments. In 41 of them, the trials were too small or badly designed to be of use. In 29, the studies showed possible benefits but problems with sample sizes and other flaws meant the results were inconclusive. Shu-chuen Li of Newcastle University in Australia found that only a quarter of the studies he looked at showed some benefits, but most of these were marginal.

One aspect of TCM that may be of some help is its focus on prevention rather than cure, says Martin Taylor of the World Health Organisation’s mission in Beijing. TCM doctors aim to see their patients often, partly because the remedies they offer are supposed to be tailored to the individual and need fine-tuning. An axiom of TCM is that good doctors cure diseases before they appear.

As a result, more attention to traditional medicine implies more attention to primary health care, which is best able to monitor the progress of patients with lifestyle-related ailments (such as obesity) and the diseases of ageing. Though a middle-income country, China has the disease burden of a rich one: non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes cause 85% of all deaths. If TCM doctors can suggest better diets or persuade the half of adult men who smoke to give up, then they could make a big difference.

A government document called Healthy China 2030 says that without better primary services, the health-care system will not be able to keep up with the demands of the ageing population. But an acute shortage of general practitioners is a huge impediment. Even a patient with a minor ailment usually goes to see a specialist. This adds both to costs, since consultations with such doctors are expensive, and to horrible overcrowding in hospitals. The government would like more people to visit local clinics instead. But many people are reluctant to see GPs, regarding them as inferior to specialists. They might, however, be willing to go to a TCM clinic. Opening more of them could offer some relief to the hospital system.

When administered with caution, TCM can sometimes help people, at least as a placebo. But China’s efforts to promote it as an equal of conventional medicine are fraught with danger. They could result in even more patients with serious illnesses shunning regular treatments in favour of traditional ones. They could also pose an even greater threat to rare species that are often—despite bans on their use—turned into TCM drugs. To reduce such risks, big reforms are needed in the way China manages TCM.

Far tighter controls on the use of animals and plants are needed. According to Meng Zhibin of the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, 22% of the 112 most commonly used natural ingredients for TCM are on various endangered-species lists. Some are from herbs that can be grown on farms, but some are from rare animals that are usually captured and smuggled into the country. Trade in pangolin, an anteater, is banned worldwide. But Wang Weiquan of the Chinese Medicine Association says smuggling continues because domestic pangolin farms are not big enough. TCM proponents do not seem to care. They worry about the future of traditional medicine itself. Wen Jianmin of the Wangjiang TCM hospital in Beijing says the ban on the use of some animals has already led to the extinction of some famous traditional remedies. “If we don’t protect TCM better, Chinese medicine will exist only in name,” he says.

The government also needs to improve safety standards. One example: a genus of plants called aristolochia, used against arthritis, turns out to be carcinogenic. But the government’s desire to improve safety implies more standardisation, and that contradicts the TCM belief that each treatment should be custom made. In 2016 the food and drug regulator revoked 81 licences of TCM makers. Yan Xijun, of Tasly group, a medical firm, says that of TCM pharmaceutical companies that do have licences, “it’s fair to say 50-60% of them more or less have problems that need solving.”

Training TCM doctors in modern medicine would also be a huge help. The government says that traditional medicine should complement the normal kind. That will require doctors who are skilled in both types and who can advise patients when they should be using modern methods of treatment. However, few TCM doctors in China can straddle the two disciplines. The new law, which relaxes requirements that they understand medical science, is a step in the wrong direction.

The long-term goal should be to establish a health-care system that relies on modern medicine and that provides the kind of preventive treatment that TCM claims to offer. The government is exaggerating TCM’s effectiveness. Use of it is so widespread in China partly because few are willing to challenge the science behind it. TCM is distinctly Chinese—to question it is often construed as unpatriotic. Striving for modernity while clinging to tradition is a familiar struggle in China. As the problems of TCM show, achieving the right balance is harder than it looks.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Health care with Chinese characteristics"

Source: The Economist
herbsandhelpers
Site Admin
 
Posts: 4997
Joined: Wed Dec 21, 2005 4:07 pm
Location: UK

Return to Conditions

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests

Information

The team • All times are UTC [ DST ]

cron