Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have a long history of making outsized claims, not least in the case of fertility and virility, where demand for tiger penis and rhino horn has devastated wild populations.
Quackery and false claims exist in all branches of medicine, but doctors in Europe are concerned that unverified claims made under the guise of TCM are being spread worldwide by social media, inadvertently aided by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The inclusion of TCM “may lead some to see it as a legitimization of what are actually unfounded claims,” warned the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) in a joint statement this month.
“There is risk in misleading patients and doctors and in increasing pressures for reimbursement by public health systems at a time of limited resources,” the statement said.
“Social media now makes it very easy to get hold of (misleading information),” said George Griffin, a professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at St. George’s, University of London. “Unscrupulous people who wish to sell these products can easily put things on social media without any formal verification.”
One of the basic principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as it is usually defined, is that vital energy, or qi, circulates through channels in the body which connect to various organs and functions. TCM therapies, such as cupping, acupuncture or herbal treatments, seek to activate these channels, or balance someone’s qi.
Though the methods have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence that qi actually exists.
What concerns many scientists and doctors, however, is that instead of these experiments and findings boosting the reputation of an individual medicine, they are often held up as proof of the validity of the entire field of TCM, much of which has no basis in science and can be potentially dangerous.
“Treatments included within the wide TCM category are very different from one another,” the European doctors said. “They can only be considered to form a group of therapies from the perspective of history/ethnology (‘traditional’) and geography (Chinese).”
Griffin, who helped draft the joint European statement, told CNN that “our concern is that in having this in the ICD, people who aren’t critical, who aren’t medical or scientific, they may take this as a sign the WHO has full confidence in Traditional Chinese Medicine.”
Despite this, Dan Larhammer, president of EASAC, an umbrella body representing the national science academies of EU Member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, said that it was “very likely that it will be interpreted this way by TCM proponents.”
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua seemed to confirm concerns about the move being interpreted as an endorsement by declaring it was “a major step for Traditional Chinese Medicine going global.”
“What if effective, proven, inexpensive cancer therapies were available to you? Would you choose them over toxic chemo and radiation?” Truth About Cancer says. “There is ample evidence to support the allegation that the ‘war on cancer’ is largely a fraud and that multinational pharmaceutical companies are ‘running the show’.”
The Truth About Cancer did not respond to a request for comment. Many other pages on Facebook make similar claims, both about the potential effectiveness of TCM, and against mainstream medical practices.
Tech companies have begun cracking down on misleading medical claims. In September, Google announced it was prohibiting “advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy, and gene therapy,” and Facebook too has vowed to “minimize health content that is sensational or misleading.”
While many patients may see benefits in using alternative treatments, including TCM, alongside other medicine, risks arise when people avoid intervention because they are treating themselves with unscientific cures.
“The most important risk is that people and patients rely on unproven methods and refrain from using evidence-based methods,” said Larhammer, the EASAC president.
“Patients lose time and money by relying on useless methods that can, at best, provide placebo response which is usually transient. Some alternative medicine methods, including TCM, involve side effects, especially herbal extracts.”