Traditional Chinese medicine: European experts warn against strengthening unfounded claims



Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners have a long history of outrageous claims, especially in the case of fertility and virility, where the demand for tiger penis and rhino horn has devastated wild populations.

Quackery and false allegations exist in all branches of medicine, but European doctors fear that unverified claims made under the guise of TCM will be spread around the world through social media, inadvertently aided by the Organization World Health Organization (WHO).

The inclusion of TCM “may lead some to see it as a legitimation of what are in fact unfounded claims,” ​​warned the Scientific Advisory Council of the European Academies (EASAC) and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) in a joint statement this month. .

“There is a risk of misleading patients and doctors and increasing pressure for reimbursement by public health systems at a time when resources are limited,” the statement said.

More broadly, there are more and more fear that people who turn to the Internet for home remedies could be seriously harmed. For example, black ointment, which claims to treat tumors but actually burns flesh and can leave people with horrible disfigurements.

“Social media is now very easy to get (misleading information),” said George Griffin, professor of infectious diseases and medicine at St. George’s, University of London. “Unscrupulous people who want to sell these products can easily post information on social media without any formal verification.”

Unscientific medicine

One of the basic tenets of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as it’s generally defined, is that life energy, or qi, flows through channels in the body that connect with various organs and functions. TCM therapies, such as cupping, acupuncture, or herbal treatments, seek to activate these channels or balance someone’s qi.

Although the methods have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence that qi actually exists.

While the TCM industry is an estimated value of $ 130 billion in China only – and the the leaders of the country have thrown themselves behind promoting the practice – until recently, it has struggled widely to gain wide acceptance outside of East Asia.
The range of claimed benefits of some forms of TCM can be staggering. In a review of acupuncture alone, the Society for Science-Based Medicine, a US-based lobby group, found practitioners offering treatments for everything from cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s and heart disease, to asthma and autism.
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In 2009, researchers from the University of Maryland surveyed 70 systematic reviews traditional medicines, including acupuncture, herbal treatments and moxibustion, the burning of herbs near the skin. They found that no study has demonstrated a strong conclusion in favor of TCM due to scarcity of evidence or poor research methodology.
This lack of scientific rigor has created space for often outlandish claims about TCM’s ability to treat certain disorders – something spurred on by the handful of TCM-related treatments that have been shown to be scientifically beneficial. In 2015, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on malaria which draws on traditional practices and folklore.
Other herbal products used in TCM have also shown benefits in scientifically controlled experiments, justifying TCM in the eyes of many practitioners, and calls have been made for renewed research in this area, as well as on other ancient remedies which could contain clues to future medical advances.

However, what worries many scientists and physicians is that instead of those experiences and discoveries that bolster the reputation of an individual drug, they are often presented as proof of the validity of the entire field of medicine. TCM, much of which has no scientific basis. and can be potentially dangerous.

Chinese medicine is accepted by the WHO but has many criticisms

“The treatments included in the broad category of TCM are very different from each other,” European doctors said. “They can only be considered as a group of therapies from the point of view of history / ethnology (” traditional “) and geography (Chinese).”

Griffin, who helped draft the joint European statement, told CNN that “our concern is that by having this in the CDI, people who are not critical, who are not medical or scientific, they can consider this as a sign that the WHO has complete confidence in Traditional Chinese Medicine. “

A WHO spokesperson said earlier this year that the inclusion of TCM in the new guidelines was “not an endorsement of the scientific validity of a traditional medicine practice or the effectiveness of a traditional medicine intervention “.

Despite this, Dan Larhammer, president of EASAC, an umbrella body representing national academies of science in EU member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, said it was “very likely to be interpreted in this way by supporters of TCM “.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency appeared to confirm concerns that the move would be interpreted as approval, saying it was “a major step in the globalization of traditional Chinese medicine.”

A patient receives treatment with herbal bandages at a traditional Chinese medicine hospital July 12, 2019 in Zaozhuang, Shandong province, China.

Questionable claims

On Facebook and YouTube, questionable claims about the effectiveness of using TCM products in treating cancer and other major disorders are readily available. A page boosting TCM, “The truth about cancer“, has over 1.3 million likes on Facebook and encourages users to tour Asia in search of alternative treatments.

“What if effective, proven and inexpensive cancer therapies were available to you? Would you prefer them to toxic chemotherapy and radiation therapy? The Truth About Cancer Says. “There is a lot of evidence to support the claim that the ‘war on cancer’ is largely a fraud and that multinational drug companies are ‘running the show’.”

The Truth About Cancer did not respond to a request for comment. Many other Facebook pages make similar claims, both about the potential effectiveness of TCM and against traditional medical practices.

Tech companies have started cracking down on misleading medical claims. In September, Google announced that it was banning “advertising of unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapies, (non-strain) cell therapy, and gene therapy,” and Facebook also shut down. committed to “minimize health content that is sensational or misleading.”

According to a 2018 study, acupuncture treatment in Hong Kong has been linked to organ and tissue damage, infections, and other side effects.
While Facebook and Google have been praised for their recent efforts, the crackdown has had limited effect. On Facebook and YouTube, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, quack health remedies still abound. Their prevalence has coincided with the continued rise of the anti-vaccination movement, which has had major negative effects on public health in some countries.

While many patients may see benefits from using alternative treatments, including TCM, alongside other medications, there are risks when people avoid the procedure because they are treating themselves with unscientific remedies.

Most notably, Apple founder Steve Jobs on several occasions ignored doctors’ recommendations on how to treat the cancer that ultimately killed him, choosing instead to use acupuncture and herbal remedies.
TCM products are not necessarily harmless either. A comprehensive review of medicines and health products sold under the TCM label in Hong Kong Last year found that many were “seriously compromised by the practice of adulteration”, with potentially serious side effects, while in some cases acupuncture has been linked organ and tissue damage, infections and other side effects.

“The biggest risk is that people and patients will rely on unproven methods and refrain from using evidence-based methods,” said Larhammer, president of EASAC.

“Patients waste time and money relying on unnecessary methods that can at best provide a placebo response that is usually transient. Some alternative medicine methods, including TCM, involve side effects, in particular plant extracts. ”


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