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Big Pharma vs the Herbalists

October 19, 2004

Buchu tea for your babelas? Sorry, Baba, it’s a controlled substance, I can’t sell it you. You want lavender oil to help you relax? Do you have a prescription, Ma’am?

It sounds ludicrous, but amendments to the Medicines Control Act, due to be implemented in the next few months, could spell the end of the R 2 billion alternative health industry. If the amendments are carried as they now stand, you will need a doctor’s prescription to buy any herbal, homeopathic, or nutritional supplement that has a therapeutic effect – and only after these have undergone strict trials, the cost of which is likely to bankrupt many producers. This broad definition includes multivitamins, traditional African medicine, Spirulina and, if the law is interpreted strictly, chamomile tea. Yet you can buy painkillers from a supermarket that can kill you.

This, we are told, is for our protection. But in the United States, a country where a wide range of alternative remedies is used, there are only five confirmed cases of people who have died from natural remedies. Three of these came from athletes using massive doses of the Chinese herb Ma Huang – a natural source of ephedrine – to boost performance while sick. They did this against medical advice. The other two deaths are attributed to powerful muscle relaxant Kava Kava, which is known to increase liver damage in people with cirrhosis. But the two people who died were also taking a cocktail of pharmaceutical products, so it is not clear what caused their deaths.

At the same time, according to the American Medical Association, correct use of pharmaceutical products is the fourth biggest cause of death in the US. That’s not people overdosing, or taking incongruous cocktails of drugs they’ve put together themselves. That’s people who have gone to see their doctor, got a prescription, and died as a result of the medicines they took. So who needs protection from alternative remedies? Consumers? Or Big Pharma, which feels threatened by people taking responsibility for their health by supplementing intelligently?

The pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in keeping people sick, and hooked on their products. Big Pharma’s wet dream is manageable syndromes like Aids, where ‘clients’ have to take their product every day for the rest of their lives. Actually healing people would break the dependence we have on their chemical snake oils and seriously hurt the bottom line. And Big Pharma hates herbal remedies because, usually, you can’t patent a plant.

Many health store owners and people working in the industry feel the dread hand of the pharmaceutical industry on our Medicines Control Council, and feel it is the éminence grise behind the health minister’s signing of the amendments. Whether or not this is true, there certainly is a battle between two very different healing paradigms. Western medicine would do well to remember that Chinese medicine, for instance, has a 5 000 year history, and was successfully healing people while the ancestor’s of today’s doctors were still bleeding them to death to let out evil spirits.

There clearly are alternative remedies which are dangerous and should be taken off the market. These are from companies that spend more money on marketing than on quality control, and as a result are, unfortunately, often the most visible face of the alternative health industry for a lot of people.

The late night infomercials selling panaceas – a new one every week, it seems – need to be strictly monitored. A perfect example is a certain ‘fat blocker’. The advertisements claim you can eat like a pig and look like a supermodel, because the product inhibits the body’s absorption of fat. Quite apart from the obscenity of buying a pill to stop you absorbing your food in a country where people starve, the product is dangerous. Fat is an important part of the diet, and prolonged use of the product could cause a serious defiency – the most noticeable symptom of which is depression and mental confusion, which is likely to contribute to another bout of binge eating and lock the user in a negative cycle.

But for the most part, it’s a question of making sure false advertising claims aren’t being made. Since no one is dying from these products, why the need to take such a strict approach? While the government is seen to be soft on the most crucial problems of our day, it goes out in full force to shut down health shops.

Dangerous products need to be regulated. But the medical establishment is not qualified to judge paradigms it doesn’t understand, and the best way to regulate these products would be to submit them to a peer review of a representative council of alternative healers from diverse modalities.

Surely, in working for a healthier country, the sensible thing is to use everything at our disposal, and not restrict ourselves to a medical paradigm that so often fails to heal us. Western medicine is very important for health, and is particularly good at trauma situations and medical emergencies. But it needs to realise that it does not know everything, and that the first rule of medicine is ‘first, do no harm’.

There is no such thing as a miracle cure or wonder pill. The alternative health industry has certainly reached the critical mass where it needs to take itself (and be taken) seriously, to weed out the opportunists and provide people with good, clear information.

The role of complementary medicines is to keep people healthy, to educate them about their bodies, to stop mild problems from becoming worse. The role of Western medicine is to save lives when a situation is too far gone to be healed by lavender oil and a vitamin pill. Working together, this approach could dramatically improve public health. At each other’s throats, it is ordinary people who lose out.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Naka permalink
    October 6, 2005 7:09 pm

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  2. Jossie permalink
    October 6, 2005 9:00 pm

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    October 6, 2005 9:07 pm

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  4. Anonymous permalink
    October 7, 2005 3:19 pm

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