Chinese pills safe as Coca-Cola, woman told

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A civil servant allegedly made ill by Chinese herbal pills was told they were as safe as Coca-Cola when she voiced concerns about them, she told a court today.

Patricia Booth suffered kidney failure and developed cancer after taking the medicine for five and a half years, Old Bailey jurors have heard.

At one point she became concerned at "something in the newspaper" about Chinese medicine and asked about it at the shop where she got the tablets.

But she said a man there told her: "When we were children in China we used to drink a liquid form of this rather like you drink Coca-Cola in this country."

Mrs Booth, a grandmother in her fifties, was giving evidence via videolink as the court was told her condition meant travelling to court would make her too tired.

She coughed occasionally but her voice wavered just once as she thanked Judge Jeremy Roberts for wishing her well, after she had finished her evidence.

Mr Booth described how in early 1997 she had been taking antibiotics to treat spots on her face but was concerned about long-term "damage" they might cause.

She told how she saw a leaflet advertising treatments at the Chinese Herbal Medical Centre in Chelmsford, Essex.

Mrs Booth said: "It seemed to me that it would be a safe and natural alternative to antibiotics."

She said she initially paid about £35 for a consultation and was given a bag of herbs to boil up as tea.

But the treatment tasted and smelt "revolting" so she went back to the shop and asked for an alternative, she added.

Susan Wu, who worked at the shop, offered her bottles of "little tiny brown tablets" and said that if she took three capfuls - each being about 30 pills - a day it would be equivalent to taking the herbs, said Mrs Booth.

She said she would go back to the shop every 10 to 14 days to get more, normally buying three bottles a time.

Each cost £6 at first, later rising to £7, and some would be sugar-coated to disguise the unpleasant taste.

The pills seemed to help her skin and she became friendly with Wu, often popping in for a chat when she was in the area, she said. Wu even bought a romper suit for Mrs Booth's grandson when her daughter gave birth, she said.

Mrs Booth said she later bought other pills from the shop to alleviate stress because of her job was "fairly hectic and dreadful".

She also met a Chinese man called either Patrick or Philip there.

It was he who had told her the pills for her skin were as safe as Coca-Cola when she brought a newspaper article into the shop about Chinese medicines, she said.

Mrs Booth added: "There was at that time starting to be a little bit of awareness that Chinese medicine was not always as safe as it purported to be."

Wu reassured her that "everything was OK", she said.

She said that when she had asked Wu how long she would have to take the pills she replied: "Probably until the menopause."

Mrs Booth stopped taking the medicine in November 2002 and at the time noticed she was losing her appetite.

She went to see a GP in February 2003 and was admitted to hospital for an urgent blood transfusion.

The court has heard that Mrs Booth was diagnosed with kidney failure, and later with cancer, both allegedly caused by the pills.

Analysis of a bottle of pills she brought with her to hospital showed they contained a banned substance, aristolochic acid, jurors have been told.

Ying "Susan" Wu, 48, of Holland-on-Sea, Essex, denies a series of charges in relation to the sale of the medicine to Mrs Booth.

She and shop owner Thin "Patrick" Wong, 47, of Southend, deny further counts of possession of medicines without authorisation.

The judge later ruled there was no case to answer in relation to the four possession charges faced by both defendants and directed the jury to return not guilty verdicts.

Wong was discharged while Wu remains on trial on the remaining counts.

The trial was adjourned until Monday.