Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the umbrella term for modalities historically used in ancient China. TCM includes many therapeutic and some diagnostic modalities. Even though, these modalities differ in many respects, they are claimed to have in common that they are based on assumptions most of which originate from Taoist philosophy:
- The human body is a miniature version of the universe.
- Harmony between the two opposing forces, yin and yang, means health.
- Disease is caused by an imbalance between these forces.
- Five elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during disease.
- The vital energy, qi or chi, flows through the body in meridians, is essential for maintaining health.
TCM is a construct of Mao Zedong who lumped all historical Chinese treatments together under this umbrella and created the ‘barefoot doctor’ to practice TCM nationwide – not because he believed in TCM, but because China was desperately short of real doctors and needed at least a semblance of healthcare.
Over the past few years, China has been aggressively promoting TCM for expanding its global influence and for a share of the estimated US$50-billion global market (of products of dubious quality). A recent article in ‘Nature’ explains that the WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, is set to adopt the 11th version of the organization’s global compendium — known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). For the first time, the ICD will include information about TCM. Chapter 26 of the ICD will feature a classification system on TCM, largely based not on science or facts, but on obsolete nonsense.
The WHO’s support applies to all traditional medicines, but its relationship with Chinese medicine, and with China, has grown especially close, in particular during the tenure of Margaret Chan, who ran the organization from 2006 to 2017 and made sure that several documents favourable to TCM were passed. The WHO’s declarations about traditional medicine are puzzling. Various of these WHO documents call for the integration of “traditional medicine, of proven quality, safety and efficacy”, while being silent as to which traditional medicines and diagnostics are proven. Wu Linlin, a WHO representative in the Beijing office, told Nature that the “WHO does not endorse particular traditional and complementary medicine procedures or remedies”.
But this is evidently not the case and in sharp contrast to the WHO’s actions in other areas. The agency provides, for instance, specific advice on what vaccines and drugs to use and what foods to avoid. With traditional medicines, however, such specifics are missing. The message therefore can only be that the WHO endorses TCM as safe and effective.
The evidence, however, tells us a different story. On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed that:
- the clinical trials of TCM are often of poor quality,
- there are several good reasons why one has to be very sceptical about research coming out of China,
- critics are silenced,
- in general, the evidence on TCM is neither positive nor trustworthy.
China’s drug regulator gets more than 230,000 reports of adverse effects from TCM each year, and Chinese herbal medicines carry multiple direct risks:
- one or more ingredients can be toxic,
- some have been shown to be contaminated with toxic materials such as heavy metals,
- others are adulterated with synthetic drugs such as steroids,
- others again can interact with prescription drugs taken concomitantly,
- and not to forget, the risk for endangered species.
To this, we have to add the indirect risk of employing useless treatments for otherwise treatable conditions.
In view of all this, the WHO’s endorsement of TCM and its obsolete concepts is not just not understandable, it is a dangerous step backwards and, in my view, even intolerable.