Herbs to increase the supply of breast milk and heal the spleen. Traditional remedies that promise to cure insomnia and acne. Secret treatments against cancer that have been ignored or suppressed by Western medicine.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (MTC) have a long history of huge claims, especially in the case of fertility and virility, where the demand for tiger penis and rhino horn has devastated wild populations.
Charlatanería and false claims exist in all branches of medicine, but doctors in Europe are concerned that claims not verified under the pretext of traditional Chinese medicine are disseminated throughout the world by social networks, helped by World Health Organization (WHO).
Two important European scientific and medical bodies say that WHO has legitimized all forms of traditional Chinese medicine by including traditional Chinese medicine in the next edition of the International Statistical Classification of Related Diseases and Health Problems (DCI), a very influential compendium used by health professionals across the globe.
The inclusion of TCM "may lead some to see it as a legitimation of what are really unfounded claims," the Scientific Advisory Council of the European Academies (EASAC) and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) warned in a statement set this month. .
"There is a risk of deceiving patients and doctors and increasing pressures for public health systems to reimburse at a time of limited resources," the statement said.
More generally, there is a growing concern that people who turn to the Internet for home remedies may be exposed to serious harm. For example, black ointment, which claims to treat tumors but actually burns meat and can leave people with horrible disfigurements.
"Social networks now facilitate obtaining (misleading information)," said George Griffin, professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at St. George's, University of London. "Unscrupulous people who want to sell these products can easily put things on social media without any formal verification."
One of the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine, as generally defined, is that vital energy, or qi, circulates through channels in the body that connect to various organs and functions. MTC therapies, such as cupping, acupuncture or herbal treatments, seek to activate these channels or balance someone's qi.
Although the methods have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence that the qi really exists.
While the traditional Chinese medicine industry has an estimated value of $ 130 billion in China alone, and the country's leaders have struggled to promote the practice, until recently it has struggled heavily to gain widespread acceptance outside of East of Asia.
The wide variety of alleged benefits of some forms of TCM can be amazing. In a review of acupuncture alone, the Society for Science-Based Medicine, a US-based lobbyist. In the US, he found professionals who offer treatments for everything from cancer, stroke, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, to asthma and autism.
In 2009, researchers at the University of Maryland surveyed 70 systematic reviews of traditional medicines, including acupuncture, herbal treatments and moxibustion, burning herbs near the skin. They found that no study demonstrated a strong conclusion in favor of traditional Chinese medicine due to insufficient evidence or poor research methodology.
This lack of scientific rigor has created space for often extravagant claims about the capabilities of TCM in the treatment of certain disorders, something driven by the handful of treatments related to TCM that have scientifically proven to be beneficial. In 2015, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on malaria that was based on traditional practices and folklore.
Other products derived from herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine have also shown benefits in scientifically controlled experiments, claiming traditional Chinese medicine in the eyes of many professionals, and new research has been requested in this area, as well as in other ancient remedies that They could have clues to future medical advances.
However, what worries many scientists and doctors is that, instead of these experiments and findings that increase the reputation of an individual drug, they are often presented as proof of the validity of the entire field of traditional Chinese medicine, great part of which has no scientific basis. And it can be potentially dangerous.
"The treatments included in the broad TCM category are very different from each other," said European doctors. "They can only be considered to form a group of therapies from the perspective of history / ethnology (" traditional ") and geography (Chinese)."
Griffin, who helped draft the joint European declaration, told CNN that "our concern is that by having this in the ICD, people who are not critical, who are not medical or scientific, can take this as a sign that the WHO has full confidence in traditional Chinese medicine. "
A WHO spokesman said earlier this year that the inclusion of traditional Chinese medicine in the new guidelines, "was not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any traditional medicine practice or the effectiveness of any traditional medicine intervention."
Despite this, Dan Larhammer, president of EASAC, a general body representing the national scientific academies of the EU member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, said it was "very likely that proponents of traditional medicine China interpret it this way. "
China's state news agency, Xinhua, seemed to confirm concerns about the measure that is interpreted as a backup by stating that it was "an important step for Chinese Traditional Medicine to globalize."
On Facebook and YouTube, doubtful claims about the effectiveness of the use of TCM products in the treatment of cancer and other important disorders are readily available. A page that drives traditional Chinese medicine, "The truth about cancer," has more than 1.3 million likes on Facebook, and encourages users to follow a tour of Asia in search of alternative treatments.
“What would happen if effective, proven and economical cancer therapies were available? Would you choose them instead of toxic chemotherapy and radiation? ”, Says Truth About Cancer. "There is ample evidence to support the claim that the" war on cancer "is largely a fraud and that multinational pharmaceutical companies are" running the program. "
The truth about cancer did not respond to a request for comment. Many other pages on Facebook make similar claims, both about the potential effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine and against conventional medical practices.
Technology companies have begun to take strong measures against deceptive medical claims. In September, Google announced that it was banning "the advertising of unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cell (non-mother) and gene therapy," and Facebook also promised "minimize the health content that be sensational or misleading. "
While Facebook and Google have been praised for their recent efforts, the repression has had a limited effect. On both Facebook and YouTube, owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, health healing cures still abound. Its prevalence has coincided with the continuous increase in the anti-vaccination movement, which has had significant negative effects on public health in some countries.
While many patients may see benefits when using alternative treatments, including traditional Chinese medicine, along with other medications, the risks arise when people avoid intervention because they are being treated with non-scientific cures.
In particular, Apple founder Steve Jobs repeatedly ignored doctors' recommendations on how to treat cancer that eventually killed him, choosing instead to use acupuncture and herbal remedies.
TCM products are not necessarily harmless either. An exhaustive review of the medications and health products that were sold under the TCM label in Hong Kong last year found that many were "severely compromised by the practice of adulteration," with potentially serious side effects, while in some cases, Acupuncture has been related to organs. and tissue lesions, infection and other adverse reactions.
"The most important risk is that people and patients rely on unproven methods and refrain from using evidence-based methods," said Larhammer, president of EASAC.
“Patients lose time and money by relying on useless methods that can, at best, provide a placebo response that is generally transient. Some alternative medicine methods, including traditional Chinese medicine, involve side effects, especially herbal extracts. "