WHO Warns of Unsafe Use of Alternative Medicines
June 22, 2004

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday sounded the alarm about the unregulated and often unsafe use of alternative medicines ranging from acupuncture to herbal medicines and food supplements.

To minimize risks, the United Nations agency issued new guidelines aimed at helping national health authorities develop reliable information for consumers -- who often purchase such treatments over-the-counter and fail to inform their physicians.

There are increasing reports of adverse and even fatal reactions to so-called traditional or alternative medicines as their use spreads in industrialized and developing countries, according to the WHO, which had no global statistics.

But it said that in China, there were 9,854 cases of adverse reactions reported in 2002 alone, more than double the number registered during all of the 1990s.

"It is not true that good, traditional medicines are good for everybody, every time in big quantities. This is a big mistake," Vladimir Lephakin, WHO assistant director-general for health technologies and pharmaceuticals, told a news briefing.

"There are a lot of examples of people who not only suffer but die because of drug interaction or non-proper use of traditional medicine," he said.

Xiaorui Zhang, WHO's coordinator for traditional medicines, said that consumers often assumed that "natural means safe," but lacked knowledge about using such products properly.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last December issued a consumer alert on the safety of dietary supplements containing ephedra, also called Ma huang, a natural substance used in China to treat people for coughs, she said.

"Most countries have no regulations to control herbal products. More than 90 countries sell them over-the-counter," Zhang added.

Food supplements, which are not often regulated as medicinal products, also lack quality controls, according to Lephakin.

Some studies had found that some products in different countries contained toxic heavy metals and in extreme cases there were traces of narcotics to make the products addictive, according to Lephakin.

"There is a need for strengthening control of food supplements in all countries," Lephakin said.