Many cultures have long used herbal remedies as part of their healing and treatment regimens. This practice is most well-known and documented in China where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dates back more than 2,000 years and includes many practices that have gradually become more mainstream around the globe. From acupuncture and tai chi to herbal remedies, some of these ancient practices are becoming more accepted, even though there's not always a lot of science to back the effectiveness of each practice.
Supporters of TCM have pushed to include it in mainstream health care approaches, and their efforts have come to fruition. The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), formally approved the latest version of its respected "International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems" (ICD) and this 11th version will include TCM remedies for the first time.
The WHO tells CNN that the "purpose of the ICD is to capture information on all health conditions and their treatment — the reason for including traditional medicine conditions and practices is that it is used by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide." It took the organization more than 10 years to get representatives from Asian countries to work together to condense centuries of knowledge into the new classification system.
Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman, told CNN that the inclusion will "link traditional medicine practices with global norms and standard development."
However, he added the inclusion of traditional medicine was "not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any Traditional Medicine practice or the efficacy of any Traditional Medicine intervention."
Many scientists are puzzled
In Chapter 26 of the latest ICD, there's a classification system for TCM that includes definitions and the introduction, "This supplementary chapter refers to disorders and patterns which originated in ancient Chinese Medicine and are commonly used in China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere around the world. This list represents a union set of harmonized traditional medicine conditions of the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean classifications."
The ICD notes, "This supplementary chapter is a subclassification for optional use."
Although TCM is optional, the mere inclusion by the WHO has many scientists scratching their heads.
In early April, the editors of Scientific American wrote, "To include TCM in the ICD is an egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice. Data supporting the effectiveness of most traditional remedies are scant, at best."
Surgical oncologist David Gorski M.D. calls it, "A triumph of the 'integration' of quackery with real medicine" in Science Based Medicine.
According to a story in Nature, however, Chinese leaders have been aggressively promoting TCM, both as medical tourism and with the WHO. According to the organization, traditional treatments are easier to come by and less expensive in some countries than Western medicine.
But as many researchers and medical experts emphasize, TCM has few studies to back up its effectiveness. As Nature points out, "Critics view TCM practices as unscientific, unsupported by clinical trials, and sometimes dangerous: China’s drug regulator gets more than 230,000 reports of adverse effects from TCM each year."
Impact on wildlife
In addition to concerns about safety and health, wildlife advocates are worried about the impact an increase in TCM could have on animals. There's the concern that rhinos will be slaughtered for their horns, moon bears will be kept in cruel conditions so that their bile can be harvested, and pangolins will be killed because some TCM practitioners think their scales have medicinal value.
John Goodrich — chief scientist and Tiger Program senior director for Panthera, which protects wild cats — acknowledged to CNN that many TCM groups have already taken wild animal parts out of their recommended procedures but stressed: "Any recognition of Traditional Chinese Medicine from an entity of the World Health Organization's stature will be perceived by the global community as a stamp of approval from the United Nations on the overall practice, which includes the use of remedies utilizing wild animal parts."
"Failure to specifically condemn the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine utilizing wild animal parts is egregiously negligent and irresponsible," he said.