The Grapevine

Chinese Herbal Medicine: What Critics Are Saying After WHO Acceptance

The World Health Organization (WHO) is drawing severe flak worldwide for including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the 11th edition of its authoritative International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD).

This is the first time TCM has been included in the ICD, which will include a chapter on traditional medicine, also for the first time.

ICD is the international "standard diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical purposes." It categorizes thousands of diseases and medical diagnoses, influences how research is conducted and can be used to determine insurance coverage.

By Western standards, the effectiveness of TCM remains unproven in most cases. There are only a small number of herbs that have been systematically tested for carcinogenicity or toxicity in the manner of Western medicines, said Dr. Arthur Grollman, a professor of pharmacological science and medicine at Stony Brook University in New York.

Some Western studies have shown herbal medicines such as those used in TCM can cause kidney failure and liver damage in some people because they contain toxic chemicals or heavy metals. Herbals can also react harmfully with other drugs.

Animal rights advocates say the WHO decision will further endanger animals such as the tiger, pangolin, bear and rhino whose organs are widely used in TCM cures.

“The reason for including traditional medicine conditions and practices is that it is used by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide," WHO said. Traditional medicine diagnosis is also poorly documented or undocumented.

Its inclusion in the ICD will "link traditional medicine practices with global norms and standard development,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman.

Jasarevic maintained that the inclusion of TCM is "not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any Traditional Medicine practice or the efficacy of any Traditional Medicine intervention."

This line of reasoning didn’t sit well with the medical and scientific communities, however.

In a dissenting editorial, Scientific American called WHO’s move "an egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice."

Dr. Grollman agreed with this assessment, saying WHO’s decision confers legitimacy on unproven therapies and add considerably to the costs of health care.

"Widespread consumption of Chinese herbals of unknown efficacy and potential toxicity will jeopardize the health of unsuspecting consumers worldwide,” Dr. Grollman pointed out.

chinese herbal medicine People have used traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, so it's no surprise that an herb known as the Thunder God Vine shows promise in treating rheumatoid arthritis (possibly) better than current medications. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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