The “grey” area of ​​traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of Covid-19

In his practice in Kuching, Sarawak, Dr. Tan Kit Weng attends to a patient.

Sitting in his consulting room, he takes the patient’s pulse and takes notes on his complaints and ailments.

“You need to drink more hot water. Take this medicine at night before sleeping. One pill a day,” he said briskly.

It’s a typical day for Tan, who has been practicing traditional and complementary medical treatment (TCM) for nearly five decades. The walls of his office are lined with certificates and his shelves are filled with glass jars filled with Chinese herbs.

While trained in science-based Western medicine, he was unhappy with the field and instead turned to traditional Chinese treatments.

Dr. Tan Kit Weng treats a patient in his practice in Kuching, Sarawak.

“I went to Miri and learned all of this from traditional Chinese doctors,” he said.

“I became friends with them and they taught me how to heal people using herbal medicines and other healing techniques.”

Most of the herbal blends he produces are for patients with chronic diseases.

Today, however, its focus has shifted to include the virus that has plagued the world for more than two years now: Covid-19.

When the pandemic started, he and his team got to work analyzing the properties of herbs to discover their medicinal value for treating Covid-19.

“During the lockdown, we produced a herbal drug called PC19,” he said.

“At that time, our associations were distributing 500 doses a day to our frontliners in hospitals across the state.”

And according to him, the response was good.

“The growing demand from Covid-19 patients has created an opportunity for our members, who are asking us to help them set up more TCM centers to meet appointment requests.

“So we plan to help our doctors operate new centers,” he said.

MTC over the years

Although the practice of traditional medicine has yet to be scientifically proven, it remains a popular option for patients, especially those suffering from conditions for which Western medicine has no cure.

For example, Tan said many cancer patients come to see him to help with chemotherapy side effects such as nausea.

Others even come for common ailments like diarrhea and coughs.

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A shelf full of traditional herbal medicines in Dr. Tan Kit Weng’s office.

And since the onset of Covid-19, TCM practitioners have been receiving a steady stream of patients seeking treatment for Covid-related symptoms.

But despite the boom in its market, the effectiveness and safety of these treatments are still questioned.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Director General of Health Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Ministry of Health has yet to include TCM practices in its Covid-19 management plan.

While Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with China earlier this year as part of its commitment to the development of traditional medical practices, Noor Hisham said TCM still lacks proper trials and scientific evidence. to prove the effectiveness of herbal remedies against Covid-19.

“We have also learned from TCM experts in China that herbal TCM formulas for treating Covid-19 should be adjusted according to each patient’s needs and characteristics, as well as the local climate and conditions. geography,” he said.

“Local studies are needed to support the use of herbal medicine in the prevention or treatment of Covid-19, to ensure it is safe and effective.”

Nonetheless, he also cited a recent World Health Organization report including the use of traditional Chinese medicine, describing it as a positive development in efforts to promote traditional Chinese medical practices in the global healthcare system. .

“Regarding the effectiveness of herbal medicine in the management of Covid-19, the Ministry of Health is aware that countries like China are using TCM in the treatment of Covid-19, which has shown positive results. “, did he declare.

“In addition to this, according to the recent report of the WHO Expert Meeting on the Evaluation of TCM in the Treatment of Covid-19 (2022), one of the main conclusions was that TCM is beneficial in reducing the risk of progression in mild to moderate cases when given as add-on interventions to conventional therapy.”

“Gray Zone”

The Sarawak Federation of Chinese Medicine and Physicians said the development of TCM in Malaysia had always been a “grey area”.

Despite the industry’s success, he said, practitioners had yet to be officially endorsed in government healthcare systems.

“The role of TCM in helping patients with Covid-19 has proven that TCM plays an important role in modern healthcare. We need recognition in government to ensure safety and health. effectiveness of herbal medicines,” Deputy Secretary Albert Lee Joo Hee said.

Noor Hisham meanwhile warned against misinformation and false claims about unregistered products, saying these could cause serious health damage.

“The Department of Health is aware that patients may choose to use herbal remedies to manage the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 infection,” he said.

“It is the patient’s right if they wish to take traditional herbs to manage their sign and symptoms of Covid-19 infection.”

Nonetheless, he added, modern medicine should be the primary source of treatment for Covid-19 if patients feel unwell.

He also advised the public to seek the appropriate treatment under the prevailing conditions in Malaysia if they prefer to take herbal medicine.

For example, he said, the Lian Hua Qing Wen capsule was one of many herbal formulations recommended for Covid-19 symptom relief, but contained ephedra – an unauthorized banned substance. in traditional medicine products registered by the Medicines Control Authority.

“In Malaysia, there are registered products of Lian Hua Qin Wen with a modified formulation (ephedra-free) with the indication of reducing body heat and relieving cough and phlegm based on its traditional philosophy which can relieve some signs and symptoms faced by patients.

“The public should follow the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and the use of herbal medicine should not prevent them from seeking appropriate treatment from the Ministry’s health facilities or getting vaccinated against Covid-19. “