Complementary medicines body under fire over evidence-based and environmental issues

The National Institute of Complementary Medicines is once again under fire for promoting unproven products, as well as having inconsistent views on the use of endangered species in traditional Chinese medicines.

The Australian Skeptics have renewed their campaign against the NICM, accusing it of “apparent endorsement of unproven ‘traditional medicine’ treatments”.

In an article in the most recent edition of The Skeptic, the association’s quarterly journal, the NICM was also accused of “directly or indirectly” promoting or supporting the use of endangered animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The latest criticism follows comments by NICM head Professor Alan Bensoussan backing the work NICM does, highlighting the “Nobel prize-winning research into Artemisia annua (qinghaosu)… a good example of the recent validation of a traditional medicine used for centuries in managing malaria.”

Professor Bensoussan told MJA Insight the research highlighted the work NICM was undertaking.

However, the Australian Skeptics’ article claims that “Unfortunately for Bensoussan, his claim for the efficacy of A. annua is totally contradicted by the World Health Organisation, which has said in a position paper for the Global Malaria Programme that it ‘does not recommend the use of A. annua plant material in any form, including tea, for the treatment or the prevention of malaria’”.

“The amount of artemisinin in A. annua is extremely variable, which is why the WHO does not recommend the use of the plant itself as treatment,” the article said.

In addition, the article raised issues over links on the NICM website to a TCM Herbal Database that gives “helpful information” on the medical use of Rhino horn, the clinical uses and indications of which it gives as: “Clears Heat, Relieves Fire Toxicity, Cools Blood, Arrests Tremors. Erythema, nosebleed, vomiting blood, delirium, convulsions, manic behaviour, loss of consciousness”.

In February, when this link was pointed out to NICM it was removed from their website, but the Australian Skeptics say there are also links between NICM and research citing the use of products containing ingredients sourced form endangered animals such as Indian Rhinoceros and Chinese Forest Musk Deer.

Professor Bensoussan has previously stated that “The TCM profession and the community should absolutely reject any use of endangered animal and plant species in Chinese medicines.”

Last year, Professor Bensoussan asked that his organisation’s nomination for the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon award for 2016 be withdrawn.

In a letter to the association, Prof Bensoussan said NICM does not “defend the use of any complementary medicine unsupported by evidence. The focus of our research institute excludes many forms of complementary medicine based on this notion.”