Outlawed drug found in Chinese dietary aid

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Tougher regulation of Chinese herbalists will be demanded by doctors today after they discovered a remedy sold as a slimming aid contained a powerful prescription drug that was banned five years ago.

Tougher regulation of Chinese herbalists will be demanded by doctors today after they discovered a remedy sold as a slimming aid contained a powerful prescription drug that was banned five years ago.

The adulterated Chinese medicine came to light after a 44-year-old woman in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, suffered palpitations, anxiety and high blood pressure on taking the slimming aid.

Doctors who treated her found an "alarming number" of other women had attended the same Chinese herbalist for weight-loss remedies.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, they say: "Most had been taking multiple preparations – as many as nine – and described spectacular results. Several reported considerable cardiovascular symptoms but were reassured that Chinese medicines are natural and can cause no harm."

Analysis of the "traditional" remedy showed it contained fenfluramine, an appetite suppressant that was subject to a global ban in 1997 after it was linked with heart and lung problems in some patients. One 29-year-old woman died of pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs) 23 days after starting a course of fenfluramine.

Fenfluramine was widely prescribed by commercial slimming clinics, especially in America, until it was banned.

The discovery of the adulterated remedy is being investigated by the Medicines Control Agency. Although nearly all Chinese herbalists are responsible, this is the latest case of a remedy being sold that contained more than the customer bargained for.

More than 100 cases of poisoning or serious side-effects have been linked to the use of Chinese or other "traditional" remedies. A 1995 study by a Chinese pharmacologist suggested 10-25 per cent of all Chinese herbs on sale in Britain were wrongly identified.

In 1999, doctors who analysed herbal ointments sold on market stalls in south London found a number contained powerful drugs. Of 11 tested, seven were found to contain a potent steroid called dexamethasone, which is illegal in Britain without a doctor's prescription.

The researchers at South-end Hospital, who discovered the latest case, concluded: "The vast majority of Chinese herbalists and practitioners of other traditional medicines are responsible, professional and caring.

"Our recent experience, however, highlights how the public's trend to believe, often with great naivety, in natural remedies can be abused.

"Stringent regulation of traditional medicines, at least to the standards of conventional practice, is urgently needed."

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee called in November 2000 for tighter regulation of alternative therapies.

About five million people consult complementary and alternative medicine therapists each year and spend £100m on remedies. With private consultations included, the total spent may be as high as £1.8bn.

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