Chinese herbal pills destroyed UK woman's health

LONDON (Reuters) - A Chinese herbal practitioner admitted on Wednesday selling dangerous pills which destroyed the health of a British woman, leading to calls for the tighter regulation of those selling alternative medicines.

A Chinese weighing scale hangs on drawers containing different Chinese herbs at a hospital in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia September 21, 2007. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Civil servant Patricia Booth, 58, took tiny brown “Xie Gan Wan” tablets for more than five years to treat a facial skin condition after being reassured that the pills were as safe as Coca-Cola.

The medicine, sold by Ying “Susan” Wu from a shop in Chelmsford, northeast of London, did clear up her skin but had disastrous consequences, the capital’s Old Bailey court heard.

Months after she stopped taking the pills in 2003, she fell seriously ill, had to have her kidneys removed, contracted urinary tract cancer and later had a heart attack.

She had to quit her job managing a government office and now needs to go to hospital for dialysis three times a week.

When it was realised the pills were likely to be behind Booth’s declining health, officers from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) visited the Chinese Herbal Medical Centre shop in July 2003 where Wu worked.

Wu, 48, told them she was a qualified doctor in China, but not in Britain. She was cleared of administering a noxious substance, but admitted lesser charges relating to the sale of the pills, the Press Association reported.

Judge Jeremy Roberts, who gave her a two-year conditional discharge, said the sale of traditional Chinese medicines was totally unregulated in Britain and so there was no evidence that Wu knew of tablets’ potential harm.

He said he accepted Wu did not know she was breaking the law and the “last thing” she would have wanted would be for any harm to come to Booth.

“Although the MHRA did their best to try and make sure everybody knew about the dangers and about the regulations, it is not a foolproof system and I am certainly not blaming you for the fact you didn’t know about these regulations,” he said.

“In this country, if you are operating a business like Miss Wu’s of supplying traditional Chinese medicine, there is no system in place whatever to make you aware of these regulations.”

The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, which represents more than 450 practitioners, said the case highlighted the need for statutory regulation.

“This would ensure that anyone who practises Chinese herbal medicine is suitably qualified and competent,” said Emma Farrant, secretary of the RCHM.

“It is unacceptable for the current situation to continue, whereby anyone can claim to be a Chinese medicine practitioner and put the public at risk.”

The Department of Health said it received more than 5,000 responses after launching a consultation last year on whether practitioners of alternative medicine should be regulated.

“We are working through these to see what the way forward should be,” a spokesman said. “Our response will be published as soon as possible.”

Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Paul Casciato