Chinese carcinogenic herbal mixture
Another case of severe and possibly terminal illness has cropped up in connection with the use of a TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) herbal mixture. It looks like an herb in the genus Aristolochia is responsible:
"Civil servant Patricia Booth, 58, took tiny brown "Xie Gan Wan" tablets for more than five years to treat a facial skin condition after being reassured that the pills were as safe as Coca-Cola.
The medicine, sold by Ying "Susan" Wu from a shop in Chelmsford, northeast of London, did clear up her skin but had disastrous consequences, the capital's Old Bailey court heard.
Months after she stopped taking the pills in 2003, she fell seriously ill, had to have her kidneys removed, contracted urinary tract cancer and later had a heart attack.
She had to quit her job managing a government office and now needs to go to hospital for dialysis three times a week."
Xie Gan Wan has been identified by British health officials as a product that has been found to contain aristolochic acids, which are toxic to the urinary tract and can cause cancer. The problem has been discussed in this forum before in connection with incidents at a European weight loss clinic in which multiple people fell seriously ill, and it was claimed here that the reason the herbal product made people sick was that it wasn't administered by Chinese herbal practitioners. In the current case, however, a person purportedly qualified as a practioner in China sold the victim the pills.
Some sources allege that any Aristolochia or related toxic herbs that wind up in this particular mixture (sold also for liver and urinary tract problems) are there as an accidental contaminant (Chinese herbal mixtures have proved in numerous instances to contain "contaminants", or more likely intentional adulterants, including steroid and other prescription drugs). However, you can find Xie Gan Wan sold online (one firm offering it is apparently based in California), advertised as containing "Caulis Aristolochiae Manshuriensis".
We all know that a wide variety of medicines can have toxic and even fatal side effects. What's especially unconscionable in this case is that the class of herbs involved keeps cropping up in herbal mixtures even though its carcinogenic properties are widely known, the mixtures themselves do not have proven efficacy in treating disease, and the complaint for which this product was prescribed was relatively minor.
This case is prompting more calls in the U.K. to regulate TCM practitioners in that country, a prospect that at least some of them look forward to, as it would convey more of a respectable air to potential clients. As Ben Goldacre points out, though, training and degrees don't necessarily qualify TCM practitioners to practice good medicine.