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Alternative Medicines May Pose Risk, United Nations Warns

May 17, 2002

Increasingly popular alternative medicines, from Chinese herbal remedies to spiritual therapies, are often misused and may harm patients, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Thursday. The agency called for further clinical research to establish the safety and efficacy of such products, consumed by up to 80 percent of people in developing countries. It urged its 191-member states to regulate traditional medicines and make them safer and more accessible.

"We hope to strengthen recognition of traditional medicines and their integration into national health systems," Jonathan Quick, director of WHO's essential drugs and medicines policy. He added that alternative, or traditional remedies, needed to be subjected to the same type of rigorous testing as modern pharmaceuticals. "We need to get evidence and information so people can make a choice between different therapies," he said.

Indigenous products and therapies, handed down through generations of Africans and Asians, have caught on in the West -- despite the skepticism of some health care professionals. "In North America, over one-half of the population has used or continues to use traditional (alternative) medicine. In the last decade, in the United States and France, the use of various methods of complementary care has doubled," Quick said. "Three out of four people living with HIV/AIDS -- in San Francisco, London or South Africa -- have used complementary medicine as part of their care," he added.

Incorrect use of alternative therapies has caused deaths in wealthy countries. The herb Ma Huang (ephedra), used in China to treat short-term respiratory congestion, was marketed in the US as a dietary aid. Its long-term use "led to at least a dozen deaths, heart attacks and strokes," the WHO said.

Xiaorui Zhang, WHO coordinator on traditional medicine policy, said 70 countries regulated herbal medicine, up from 50 just four years ago. "Only through regulation can we ensure quality, safety and efficacy," she said. But she cited difficulties in conducting clinical trials of herbal remedies. Patients often detect placebos due to a different taste. And quality control is difficult due to the combining of various plants.

Zhang, who is from China, declared: "Western medicine came to China about 100 years ago. That Chinese people survived for thousands of years without Western medicine shows that it (traditional medicine) works."

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Excerpted from:
05.16.02; Stephanie Nebehay

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