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WHO Urges Regulation of Herbal Medicines - 2004-02-10

The World Health Organization is urging governments to regulate herbal medicines, saying their unsafe use is claiming a growing number of victims.

The World Health Organization says the popularity of traditional medicines has spread widely from the developing countries to people in wealthy countries. And, this, it says, has created an industry estimated at more than $60 billion a year.

WHO says the growing use of these products has increased the risks. It says it has worrying reports of a growing number of patients experiencing negative health consequences caused by the use of herbal medicines. This, it notes, is directly linked to the poor quality of herbal medicines, including raw medicinal plant materials, and to the wrong identification of plant species.

WHO's Acting Director of Essential Drugs and Medicines, Hans Hogerzeil, says rules have to be enacted to regulate the safety of these products, which are exported from countries such as China, India and Pakistan. "One problem you have to be careful for example is a traditional medicine to which an antibiotic has been added as well by somebody. Now these sort of things you do not want and that is why regulation is very necessary because the international trade in herbal remedies is really increasing. It is really a big market. It was big and it is getting bigger," he said.

WHO cites a number of examples of unregulated or inappropriate use of traditional medicines and practices producing tragic results. For instance, it notes that the herb Ma Huang, which is known as Ephedra in the West, is traditionally used in China to treat respiratory congestion.

But in the United States, it says the herb was marketed as a dietary aid. It says over dosage of this product has led to at least a dozen deaths, heart attacks and strokes.

WHO says there is also the risk that the growing international trade in herbal remedies might pose a threat to biodiversity through over-harvesting of the raw materials for herbal medicines and other natural health-care products. If this is not controlled, it warns these practices could lead to the extinction of endangered species.