WHO Recognised Traditional Chinese Medicine Threatens Wildlife

The demand for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has negatively affected biodiversity for decades. With the WHOs go ahead, things could get worse.
WHO recognises traditional Chinese medicines at the risk of wildlife
WHO recognises traditional Chinese medicines at the risk of wildlife

After relentless lobbying by Chinese leaders, the World Health Organisation has finally integrated TCM into the 11th volume of its&nbspInternational Classification of Diseases (ICD).&nbspAmid much controversy, the World Health Assembly on May 25 formalised the inclusion of a chapter on TCM, a first for the ICD. The document is an influential database used for diagnosis, research and health insurance claims, with obvious trickle-down effects.

While those who swear by herbal remedies see this as a win, the chapter has glaring grey areas when it comes to animal-origin treatments&mdashthe latter is known to sustain smuggling networks, and there&rsquos no clinical evidence that it actually works. Anticipating backlash, the WHO clarified that it didn&rsquot endorse the use, safety, or scientific validity of any of the over 3,000 elements mentioned in the new chapter. However, the body made no attempt to exclude animal-based treatments either, drawing no distinction against relatively harmless options like acupuncture, tai chi and plant concoctions.

Scientists note that many TCM bodies have now excluded animal parts from treatments&mdashbut any acknowledgment remains harmful. "Any recognition...from an entity of the WHO's stature will be perceived by the global community as a stamp of approval from the United Nations,&rdquo said John Goodrich,&nbspchief scientist and Tiger Program senior director at Panthera.&nbspGoodrich called the failure to condemn animal use &ldquoegregiously negligent and irresponsible&rdquo.

The announcement is expected to embolden poachers and animal traffickers, who maintain the (often backdoor) appeal of Chinese medical tourism with animal skins, scales, horns and bones. Tiger, rhinoceros, and seahorse species are expected to be pushed into more vulnerable corners now, especially for populations in the Indian subcontinent. As for pangolins, who are being eaten into extinction, we didn't think things could get worse.

Western medicine is based on empirical cause and effect relationships, while TCM treatments rely on belief systems, body meridians and the flow of qi (body energy). While condensing millennia of TCM knowledge across China, Japan and South Korea is a remarkable feat, it&rsquos unclear why ICD inclusion was deemed necessary.&nbspWHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that TCM had been poorly documented in the past, and that inclusion could "link traditional medicine practices with global norms and standard development."

If the end goal was an encyclopaedia of sorts, then a separate public digital archive could have been the answer.

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