Now is not the time to endorse traditional Chinese medicine

Chinese MedicineCC: Antonika Chanel at Unsplash

Although it has a history that spans thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine remains unregulated. Despite this, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently endorsed its use. This endorsement came despite the fact that many species remain at threat because of the practices.

After facing criticism, the WHO stated that it doesn’t back any Chinese medicine that uses extinct animal parts. To many, this was too little too late. Failing to make this explicitly clear from the outset could act as a green light for all forms of TCM. Unfortunately, the WHO’s endorsement could not have come at a worse time.

What does traditional Chinese medicine involve?

Traditional Chinese medicine includes the use of tai chi, acupuncture, and various herbal tinctures. Some Chinese herbal products include the use of animal products. For example, tiger bone and rhino horn.

Although there have been some studies into the use of Chinese medicine, they’re not rigorous. However, some aspects of it do prove useful. Many people report that acupuncture reduces their headaches and cures insomnia. Similarly, practices such as tai chi promote better balance and increase peace of mind.

As an unregulated industry, traditional Chines medicine doesn’t come with the same safety guarantees as pharmaceuticals. There have been cases of the wrong herbs being used, or herbs at a concentration that isn’t safe. Similarly, some randomized tests have detected undeclared animal products, traces of warfarin, and toxic metals in herbal treatments.

Why is the endorsement controversial?

Aside from the lack of safety, there are concerns that traditional Chinese medicine accelerates the endangerment of certain species. The smuggling of Pangolin parts is still rife in East Asia, despite it being illegal. In an attempt to combat this, some governments have decided to allow the use of animal parts when the animals are bred for such purposes. Unfortunately, this masks the illegal use of animal parts, as it’s difficult to fully identify what has come from where.

In addition to placing animals in danger, the illegal wildlife trade harms rangers and those who live in targeted communities. Frontline conservation staff are often harmed or even killed by poachers who are trying to evade detection.

What could this do to endangered species?

Some of the animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine includes rhino horn and tiger bone. As the WWF reports, the persistent poaching of rhinos and habitat loss are driving them close to extinction. Tigers also fall under the endangered category, with fewer than 4,000 remaining in the wild at the time of publishing this post.

Controversially, China has recently agreed to lift a ban on trading rhino horn and tiger bone. This move faced international outcry, so it was temporarily halted. Although those who support lifting the ban will argue that it applies to animals reared for such purposes, this works against current conservation efforts. Additionally, it gives a green light to poachers who previously faced clear threats of prosecution.

Although traditional Chinese medicine is receiving a WHO endorsement, this so far seems unwise. With any luck, consistent efforts will be made to ensure products are safe and free from poached animal parts.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.