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Researchers Aim to Bridge Gap Between Traditional Chinese, Modern Medicine


With more than 2,000 years of history behind it, traditional Chinese medicine remains popular in the modern city of Hong Kong. Buyers come from all over the world to purchase the herbs and dried foods used in Chinese medicine. As Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong, scientists in the city are working to prove the effectiveness of many of these folk medicines.

Along the crowded streets of Hong Kong, it is common to see shops crammed with rows of dried foods, many of which are used in Chinese medicines or meals designed to boost health.

Many people here seek both Western-style and traditional treatment. Some hospitals provide both, and some insurance companies here cover the use of traditional Chinese therapies.

Eric Chow is an acupuncturist in Hong Kong. He says the roots of Chinese health care are represented by a balance of two forces in the body, known as yin and yang.

"Chinese believe that everything can be di vided in yin and yang," he said. "For example, yin is maybe dark and yang maybe the light. Because the imbalance of them can cause disorders of diseases, Chinese believe that our health depends on the balance inside our body."

In the Western world, traditional Chinese medicine is often criticized as being without proven effectiveness.

But here in Asia, there is a deep belief in these treatments, which include acupuncture, teas made of fungus and soups made from animals such as snakes and turtles.

P.C. Leung is the director of the Institute of Chinese Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He says for many in Asia, traditional medicine is a way of life, a belief system that many were simply born into.

"Chinese medicine is a culture. And anything cultural you cannot remove it," he said. "And in eating for instance, making soup and making dishes a lot of the medicinal plants have been used for ages."

Leung acknowledges that many forms of Chinese medicine have not been proven effective. But he says a number of treatments do hold up under scientific study.

"For instance, in malaria, the useful anti-malaria drugs are all going out of fashion because of resistance to the medication," he said. "And so one successful recent application is to use an extract from a Chinese herb called artemisinin. And this has been extracted and found to be very effective in some types of malaria."

The World Health Organization says that when artemisinin is combined correctly with other drugs, it is nearly 95 percent effective in curing uncomplicated malaria.

Clinical tests also have proved that some fungi help boost the immune system and treat allergies.

Leung says that bridging the gap between traditional Chinese medicine and modern medicine is important. The Institute of Chinese Medicine, where Leung works, works to provide modern proof that Chinese medicine can not only fill gaps where modern medicine fails, but in some cases be even more effective.

Take acupuncture as an example. It has been a part of Chinese health care for five thousand years. Small needles are inserted into specific parts of the body, along nerve centers. Chow says the practice is used to relieve many ailments.

"For some pain cases if they have inflammation, and with acupuncture it is easy to reduce the inflammation which is caused by some soft tissue injuries," he said. "But with Western medicine, even we take a lot of drugs, it doesn't work."

Acupuncture is increasingly used in the West for pain relief. Professor Leung at Chinese University says that many forms of traditional medicine are slowly taking hold outside of Asia.

"The popularity of using alternative healing in the U.S. and also Europe has been increasing tremendously in the last 10 years," he said. "So what is happening outside China has sort of pushed up the belief, because what has been popular in China has found to be also popular outside China."

However, there are risks with some traditional medicines, just as there are with modern treatments.

For example, a Chinese herb called aristolochic acid has been banned in many countries for its connection to kidney failure. Other Chinese medicines have been banned in countries including Britain after regulators found they contained potentially toxic ingredients.

There are also animal conservation issues because of the use of parts from endangered animals, such as tigers and bears.

In China and other parts of Asia, thousands of bears have their bile harvested, very painfully, for use in traditional medicine. The bile trade is illegal in China, but still flourishes.

Jill Robinson is founder of the Asia Animal Foundation, an animal protection group. She says the bile is unnecessary because there are alternatives that are equally effective.

"The bile can be replicated in the lab for pennies, and also there are 54 different herbal alternatives in traditional Chinese medicine," she said.

The bears are endangered, and the bile from farmed bears is often contaminated with infectious bacteria because of the conditions in which the bears are kept.

Scientists in Hong Kong and elsewhere acknowledge these problems. To address them, they are working to show the best ways to use traditional Chinese medicine. Experts such as Chow and Leung say that while researchers do their studies, there is no harm in trying to keep your body, as many Chinese say, in perfect balance.