Deaths linked to herb cures

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TWO people are believed to have died recently after taking Chinese herbal remedies.

One, a 32-year-old married Nottingham man, died from liver failure after taking a remedy known as eternal life. The other, a 28-year-old woman, took Chinese herbs for eczema and also died of liver failure. Her death is being investigated by the National Medical Toxicology Unit at Guy's Hospital, London, which has handled more than 600 cases of alternative remedies linked to adverse reactions.

The deaths come amid growing concern about the contents of some of cures and treatments being sold in the UK. Leading toxicology specialists yesterdaycalled for a licensing system for Chinese mixtures, which have been found to contain arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals as well as steroids and highly toxic plants and herbs.

Side-effects that the Guy's unit (formerly the National Poisons Unit) has identified include heavy-metal poisoning, liver disease and permanent skin discoloration following the use of herbal tanning preparations.

The booming alternative remedies business is believed to be worth pounds 200m a year. There is no licensing of the products, little or no policing of items on sale, and no national reporting system for recording deaths, illness or other adverse effects. Many doctors now want the preparations to be controlled in the same strict way as phamaceutical drugs .

The Nottingham man who died had been taking a preparation of herbal leaves as a treatment for lipomas, fatty lumps under the skin. He died despite an emergency liver transplant. An inquest is being arranged.

One of the doctors who treated him, senior registrar Dr Guy Vautier, said: "Four weeks earlier he had taken a locally dispensed Chinese herbal medicine known as 'eternal life'. After five weeks he was deeply jaundiced and despite urgent liver transplantation he died.

''The plants in the preparation are thought to be toxic to the liver. We did not find any other medical cause for him to go into liver failure."