By guest blogger Loretta Marron
Although assumed to be traditional, what we know today as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ (TCM) was invented in the 1950s for political reasons by then Chairman Mao. It has since been proclaimed by Xi Jinping, now life-President of the People’s Republic of China, as the “jewel” in the millennia of Chinese civilization.
In May this year, Xi “announced plans to criminalise criticism of traditional Chinese medicine”. Speaking out against TCM could land you years in prison, prosecuted for “picking fights to disturb public order” and “defaming” the practice.
With the industry expected to earn $420 billion by the end of 2020, covid-19 has provided Xi with a platform to promote unproven, potentially harmful TCM. To keep these profits filling Chinese coffers, the World Health Organization (WHO) remains silent and those challenging TCM are silenced.
In January, the late Dr Li Wenliang was arrested and gaoled for warning China about covid-19. Li was one of up to nine people who were disciplined for spreading rumours about it. As the virus silently spread around the world, Beijing told the WHO that there was ‘no clear evidence’ of spread between humans.
As their death toll passed 1,000, Beijing’s response was to remove senior officials and to sack hundreds over their handling of the outbreak. With the support of the WHO, claims continue to be made that TCM “has been proved effective in improving the cure rate”, denying the simple fact that “patients would have recovered even if they hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine”.
With cases now heading for 8 million, and over four hundred thousand people confirmed dead world-wide and with economies in free-fall, Beijing continues, “to protect its interests and people overseas; to gain leadership of international governance”,for financial gain, to aggressively use its national power. Under the guise of ‘International Aid’, during the pandemic, Beijing promoted treatments based on unproven traditional medicine, sending TCM practitioners to countries including Italy, France and Iran.
Back in 2016, the Chinese State Council released a “Strategic Development Plan for Chinese Medicine (2016-2030)”, seeking to spread ‘knowledge’ into campuses, homes and abroad.
In July 2017, a law promising equal status for TCM and western medicine came into effect. Provisions included encouragement to China’s hospitals to set up TCM centres. “The new law on traditional Chinese medicine will improve global TCM influence, and give a boost to China’s soft power”.
In 2019, after strong lobbying by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), WHO added a chapter on TCM to their official International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). In China, doctors are now instructed to prescribe traditional medicine to most patients.
While Chinese herbs might have exotic names, they are, once translated, often the same as western herbs, many of which might have significant interactions. WHO fails to acknowledge any drug interactions.
In 1967, Mao launched Project 523 to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and none had worked. Trained in pharmacology and modern western methods, Tu Youyou used the scientific method to test sweet wormwood, a herb traditionally used in China for fever, where she developed a useful artemisinin derivative for resistant malaria. The drug has saved millions of lives. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize for her work. However, Tu’s work is not a blanket endorsement of TCM: without the years of research, she would not have been successful.
TCM is commercially driven. Criticism of remedies is often blocked on the Internet in China, and critics have been jailed. The majority of TCM’s are not tested for efficacy in randomized clinical trials. Clinical trials are usually of poor quality and serious side effects are underreported. China has even rolled back regulations as Beijing forcefully promotes TCM’s as an alternative to proven western medicine. An increasing number of prestigious research hospitals now prescribe and dispense herbs that may cause drug interactions alongside western medicine for major illness patients.
TCM’s are not safe. Most systematic reviews suggest that there is no good or consistent evidence for effectiveness, negative results aren’t published, research data are fabricated and TCM-exports are of dubious quality.
If the benefits of herbal remedies are to be realised, good clinical studies must be encouraged.
TCM is not medicine. It’s little more than a philosophy or a set of traditional beliefs, about various concoctions and interventions and their alleged effect on health and diseases.
To stop misleading the world with what Mao himself saw as nonsense, and to mitigate future pandemics, WHO can and should remove all mention of TCM other than to state that it is unproven and could be dangerous.