China health officials’ TCM advice in flu fight draws fire

Mainland health officials have been criticised by some doctors for suggesting traditional Chinese medicine and other alternative treatments to help ward off bird flu as the months-long process of creating a new vaccine gets under way.

Gansu’s health commission, for instance, encouraged residents to go outdoors, preferably into wooded areas, for fresh air and sunshine. Listening to music was also deemed an effective way to keep the H7N9 virus at bay.

Massaging the side of one’s nose was also said to help, as was exposing parts of one’s legs and stomach to incense once a day.

Health authorities in the eastern province of Jiangsu suggested a long list of herbal drinks, including the popular ban lan gen, a type of root that is often taken to fight the flu and was prescribed during the Sars outbreak a decade ago.

Dr Fang Shimin , biologist and a popular science writer on the mainland, was among those who questioned the clinical effectiveness of these methods.

In his microblog on Sohu .com he reminded people that Gansu health authorities have promoted the eating of pig’s feet as an effective treatment for various diseases, including Aids and cancer.

“The traditional Chinese medicine industry is trying to cash in,” he wrote.

Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, who teaches respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said there was no scientific evidence to show that ban lan gen is effective at preventing influenza.

David Fong Wang-fun, a retired professor of Chinese medicine at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, said Chinese medical theories have long shown that ban lan gen functions as a health supplement, but it is not for emergency treatment.

Traditional Chinese medicine, even when effective, is sometimes greeted with scepticism because much of its purported benefits are not backed by the kind of laboratory evidence for its Western counterparts.

“The biggest headache regarding traditional Chinese medicine is that its effectiveness often cannot be explained,” said Dr Dong Xieliang, president of the Xian Xietong Hospital in Shaanxi . “The curing process can be so sophisticated it may not be simply explained scientifically, physically or chemically.”

Dong said mainland doctors found several herbal therapies helpful in relieving patients’ ailments during the fight against Sars and other flu outbreaks over the past decade.

However, a challenge has been that every herb has a side effect, and prescriptions are often very sophisticated, with more than a dozen herbs needed for maximum effectiveness.

Dong expressed concern that some misleading therapies proposed to fight the new bird flu could further damage the reputation of traditional Chinese medicine on the mainland. “Some advice is obviously wrong, such as going outdoors and eating certain kinds of food or herbs,” he said. “Effective treatment should be much more sophisticated.”



Preventive measures advocated by health organisations in China and elsewhere

National Health and Family Planning Commission

Avoid eating raw or half-cooked eggs and birds.

Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and Centre for Preventive Medical Research

Avoid contact with dead animals and wash hands frequently.

Jiangsu Health Bureau

Consume Chinese medicines ban lan gen (woad root) in granules and radix astragali oral liquid.

Guangxi Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Avoid consumption of raw chicken and cook animal foodstuffs thoroughly.

Gansu Health Bureau

Massage facial acupuncture points and consume traditional Chinese medicine.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection

Cover the nose and mouth while sneezing or coughing, hold the spit with tissue and put it into covered dustbins.

World Heath Organisation

Cook food so that it reaches 70°C in all parts (with no pink parts).