Eczema patients 'left to seek back-street cures'

HUNDREDS of people with the most severe form of eczema are turning to 'back-street' practitioners of Chinese medicine because the Government has banned the only approved herbal remedy from National Health Service prescription, doctors said yesterday.

Many people who set themselves up as practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine have no qualifications and sell eczema 'treatments' which have not been tested, according to dermatologists. Some may be toxic and cause liver damage.

Clinical trials at Great Ormond Street hospital and the Royal Free Hospital in London have shown that the withdrawn remedy, derived from a traditional Chinese herbal medicine and known as Zemaphyte, is effective in some adults and children with severe atopic eczema, which can cover the whole body. The remedy does not have a licence from the Medicines Control Agency but was available on prescription until November last year. It is now only available to patients enrolled in clinical trials.

Initially, the Department of Health said that the remedy had no 'therapeutic use'; more recently it has said there are concerns about its toxic effects on the liver and its cost of pounds 76.40 for a week's supply for an adult, and pounds 38.20 for a child. A product licence application for Zemaphyte is to be submitted by the manufacturers shortly.

Dr Malcolm Rustin, a consultant dermatologist at the Royal Free Hospital, said the herbal remedy was of benefit to a small group of patients, and that there had been no cases of irreversible liver damage linked with it.

Concern about toxicity had arisen because of cases related to treatments obtained from unregistered Chinese medicine clinics.

An effective treatment had been withdrawn because of government intervention, Dr Rustin said. 'They try something else or go to Chinese herbal shops which are springing up in every back street.'

Christina Funnell, director of the National Eczema Society which funded research into the remedy, said yesterday that people assumed that all Chinese herbal remedies sold for eczema were equally effective, but 'there has only been one Chinese plant compound tested to Western standards'.