Animal rights or human health? Chinese medicine at the crossroads

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/12/13 19:08:39

A visitor views snakes used in Chinese medicine at the Chinese Medicine Museum in Xiamen, South China's Fujian Province. Photo: CFP

A visitor views snakes used in Chinese medicine at the Chinese Medicine Museum in Xiamen, South China's Fujian Province. Photo: CFP

The traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry is facing a dilemma. Should it replace tiger bones and rhino horns in its medicine to please animal rights activists at the cost of cutting claimed healing effects?

China issued its first TCM white paper on December 6, highlighting both the development of the modern TCM pharmaceutical industry and the traditional roots of ancient therapies.

Animal rights activists have long criticized TCM because many traditional formulas contain animal parts or elements extracted from them.

Finding substitutes

Zheng Jin, head of the Yunnan provincial TCM administration, said with rising public awareness of animal protection, the TCM industry is promoting the use of substitutes for wild animal parts.

There are generally two ways to make substitutes of animal products in TCM - finding alternative, more acceptable animals or artificial synthesis, Zheng said.

In January, the scientific development of synthetic muskone to replace that extracted from musk deer won first prize at the China National Science and Technology Progress Awards. The element is widely used in TCM drugs as it is thought to help blood circulation and treat minor strokes.

Zheng said a number of companies  are conducting experiments in raising rhinos, as rhino horns are one of the components in both TCM and traditional medicines in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. It is said by some to be able to treat typhus and snake poison.

Zheng said by artificial feeding, the companies gather rhino horn like "trimming a finger nail," with the horns regenerating.

Feng Ming, vice president of Shanxi University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said it is not new for people to oppose using rare animals in TCM remedies.

 "As early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Sun Simiao, known as the King of Medicine in China, was against the use of animal parts," he said.

In his book, Sun said Chinese medicine was aimed at saving people. "How could we do so at the expense of animals' lives?"

It is now common among TCM doctors to replace rhino horn with buffalo horn, as well as using two other ingredients to replace bear gall. But many TCM doctors claim such replacements undermine the effectiveness of the medicine.

Lin Yanfang, chief expert of Dai ethnic minority TCM in Yunnan, said that both mainstream TCM and traditional therapy used by people of Chinese ethnic minority groups have traditional recipes noting the importance of animal parts.

"Traditional formulas say gall bladder from a wild bull has detoxifying functions, which can be used for treating therioma. However, wild oxen have become endangered. We have tried to extract gall from buffalo," Lin said.

But he claims that medicine composed from water buffalo is less effective than that made from wild bull.

Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical, a Chinese bear bile company based in South China's Fujian Province, has quit its IPO bid twice after animal rights activists waged a media war condemning it for raising bears and extracting bile from their gall bladders.

Qiu Liping, chair of the company, on December 6 declined Xinhua's interview request.

The company has its own bear farm for the extraction of bile from live caged bears via catheters in their bodies. The practice is considered cruel and painful.

Despite the uproar, the company insists that tonics produced with bear bile ensure the medicine works according to the traditional recipe.

Lagging behind

Yang Jukui, retired head of a Shanxi TCM factory, noted that China is lagging behind Japan and Germany in TCM pharmacological studies and techniques to extract effective components.

"The pharmacological basis of many traditional formulas remains unknown. Some ingredients have different effects if handled in different ways and temperatures, but no one knows why," he said.

Beijing Tongrentang (Group), one of China's most prestigious TCM pharmacies. Tian Ruihua, chief engineer of the company, told Xinhua on December 6 that 60 of its overseas stores have TCM doctors.

Many Tongrentang medicines use synthetics to replace animal elements, including tiger bones and musk.

"The technology for making artificial substitutes is now very mature. The substitutes provide a good supplement," Tian said.

Newspaper headline: Us or them


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