Traditional Chinese medicine: European experts warn against bolstering unfounded claims

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

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

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

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

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

“Social media now makes it 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 put things on social media without any formal verification.”

Unscientific medicine

One of the basic tenets of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as it is generally defined, is that life energy, or qi, flows through channels in the body that connect to 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 used for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence that qi actually exists.

While the TCM industry is worth an estimated $130 billion in China alone — and the country’s leaders have thrown themselves behind promoting the practice — it has until recently struggled to gain acceptance. outside of East Asia.
The wide 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 advocacy group, found practitioners offering treatments for everything from cancer, strokes, Parkinson’s disease and from heart disease to asthma and autism.
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In 2009, researchers at the University of Maryland surveyed 70 systematic reviews of traditional medicines, including acupuncture, herbal treatments, and moxibustion, the burning of herbs close to the skin. They found that no study demonstrated a strong conclusion in favor of TCM due to paucity of evidence or poor research methodology.
This lack of scientific rigor has created space for often outlandish claims about TCM’s abilities to treat certain disorders, which has been reinforced by the handful of TCM-related treatments that have been scientifically proven to be beneficial. . In 2015, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on malaria that drew on traditional practices and folklore.
Other products derived from herbs used in TCM have also shown benefits in scientifically controlled experiments, justifying TCM in the eyes of many practitioners, and there have been calls for further research in this area, as well as on other ancient remedies that may contain clues. to future medical advances.

What worries many scientists and physicians, however, is that instead of these experiments and discoveries bolstering the reputation of an individual medicine, they are often held up as proof of the validity of the whole field of medicine. TCM, much of which has no scientific basis. and can be potentially dangerous.

Chinese medicine is accepted by WHO but it has many critics

“The treatments included in the broad category of TCM are very different from each other,” the European doctors said. “They can only be considered to form a therapy group from the perspective of (‘traditional’) history/ethnology and (Chinese) geography.”

Griffin, who helped draft the joint European statement, told CNN that “our concern is that by having this in the ICD, people who are not critical, who are not medical or scientific, can take this as a sign that the WHO has full 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 any traditional medicine practice or the efficacy of traditional medicine intervention.

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

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency appeared to confirm concerns about the move being interpreted as an endorsement by saying it was “a major step for the globalization of traditional Chinese medicine”.

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

Dubious claims

On Facebook and YouTube, dubious claims about the effectiveness of using TCM products in the treatment of cancer and other major disorders are readily available. A TCM-boosting page, “The Truth About Cancer,” has more than 1.3 million likes on Facebook and encourages users to take a tour through Asia in search of alternative treatments.

“What if effective, proven, and inexpensive cancer therapies were available to you? Would you choose them over toxic chemotherapy and radiation therapy?” The Truth About Cancer says. claim that the ‘war on cancer’ is largely a fraud and that multinational pharmaceutical companies are ‘running the show’.”

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

Tech companies have started cracking down on misleading medical claims. In September, Google announced that it was banning “advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapies, (non-stem) cell therapies, and gene therapies,” and Facebook has also taken action. Committed to “minimising health content that is sensational or misleading.”

Acupuncture therapy in Hong Kong has been linked to organ and tissue damage, infections and other adverse effects by a 2018 study.
While Facebook and Google have been praised for their recent efforts, the crackdown has had limited effect. On both Facebook and YouTube, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, cures for quackery 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, risks arise when people avoid the procedure because they self-medicate with unscientific remedies.

Most notably, Apple founder Steve Jobs repeatedly ignored doctors’ recommendations on how to treat the cancer that ultimately killed him, opting 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 “severely compromised by the practice of adulteration”, with potentially serious side effects, while in some cases, acupuncture has been linked to organ problems. and tissue damage, infections and other adverse reactions.

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

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