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Modern Ills for Ancient Chinese Medicines

The Chinese medicine sector has modernized along with the rest of the country, with local manufacturers turning age-old recipes into fast-acting injectable drugs, reports Bloomberg Businessweek (Subscribe now in Pakistan).

Early on a snowy, winter morning in January 2012, Wu Xiaoliang, a 37-year-old farmer, stopped by his local doctor to remedy a headache. At a small clinic near his village he received two injections made from traditional Chinese herbs. Hours later, villagers saw him struggling to prop himself up on his moped as he drove home. By noon, he was dead.

What killed Wu was later described in an autopsy report as a "drug allergy." But doctors couldn’t pinpoint what he was allergic to because the shots he was given contained dozens, if not hundreds, of different compounds extracted from two herbs.

For centuries, Chinese have bought plant and animal parts from traditional clinics, and boiled them into bitter soups to treat colds, strokes and even cancer. But the Chinese medicine sector has modernized along with the rest of the country, with local manufacturers turning age-old recipes into fast-acting injectable drugs.

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Chinese medicine injections generated sales of $13 billion last year, according to the research firm Forward Industries Institute. Listed companies worth billions of dollars have thrived, benefiting major global funds like those managed by Schroders Plc., UBS Group AG and Skagen AS that hold their stocks.

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Yet, the industry’s ascent has also raised public health concerns. Over a hundred injections based on traditional recipes are sold in China these days, some without stringent human trials. Doctors often prescribe them in an array of untested combinations. Adverse reactions, from skin rashes to fatalities like Wu’s, doubled to about 133,000 last year from 2011, according to government data.

Having struggled for decades to rein in the sector, regulators have recently begun pushing for an overhaul of Chinese medicine injections, seeking to weed out unsafe and ineffective products. But the process could take up to a decade, given the complexity of these intravenous pharmaceuticals.

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