So herbal medicine has been in this news quite a lot this week. Normally, I like any publicity or exposure that my chosen profession and pet subject receives. But not this week. This week has been a bizarre contradiction of disclosures and an exercise in hyperbolic statements made without engaging common sense first.
This week the government published its ‘Report on the regulation of regulation of herbal medicines and practitioners‘. This report recommended that herbal medicine practitioners and medicines dispensed in the clinical setting should not be statutorily regulated due to ‘very limited evidence of risk from products and practitioners’ (Fair enough), and more damning ‘there is also very limited evidence of effectiveness of herbal medicines in improving health outcomes’. Ouch.
Of course, it wasn’t long before our ‘friends’ came out of the woodwork. Dr. Edzard Ernst, the first ‘Professor of Complimentary Medicine’ Has been at it again, writing a blog article called ‘the regulation of nonsense will generate nonsense‘ a rather offensive piece that in one article slams an entire profession and area of medicine. Likewise Colquhoun, the author of a ‘bad science’ blog, which uses every instrument of false representation and distortion of words and figures known to academia to ‘prove’ that herbal medicine is bad science and doesn’t work has also been at it again: link here for anyone that’s interested. Sigh. Even the Torygraph printed an article about it, which was shockingly unbiased for them. Though they did bring in the Prince Charles matter. For those that don’t know, it’s recently been revealed that the Prince has been writing letters to the cabinet expressing strong opinions, something which sits on a knife edge between one man expressing his private opinion, and Royal interference in government, a costitutional pickle for the UK; holistic medicine was one of the subjects he lobbied extensively for.
Not 24 hours later, several herbalists in the UK, myself included, spat their morning tea all over their cornflakes. There was a piece on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme about Saxon medicine. Guess what, a paper is due to be presented to The Society for General Microbiology’s spring conference on findings that a remedy from the Leechbook of Bald actually does kill bacteria; no less than MRSA, a hospital ‘superbug’. The paper notes with some surprise that the ingrednts in isolation do not have any unusual qualities; that it is the combination found in the prepared medicine that is effective; a synergistic action. Herbalists have been going on about synergistic actions of constituents for decades, and have been wholly and rigorously ignored.
While it is tempting to play the poor, bullied minority here, I won’t. These two items of news need to lead to a discussion; a serious discussion about what happens to herbal medicine as a discipline beyond training and clinical pratice.
The first problem is research. As a student of herbal medicine, any kind of primary research was closed to me. I wanted do either an HPLC profile of the more traditionally used strain of a certain plant to see if it had a lower toxicity. Failing that, an animal test at doses that more closely reflected clinical practice than previous studies. I was told that there weren’t the human resources to supervise me, it wouldn’t get past the ethics board, and there wasn’t the cash or faclities to do it. As it happened, I just did a literature review of other peoples work instead, and did actually make some new connections. Which I didn’t publish and are sat in a box somewhere. We are blamed as a profession for not having any research base, but as a profession we do not do any research. Pharmacy companies do it, or people doing PhDs in other subjects, like history or chemistry. This means that the dialogue is always skewed away from clinical use as we herbalists use it, and away from our own professional ends, to whatever aims the researchers who did the work colour their writing with.
Secondly, our professional bodies, the largest in the country in particular, haven’t exactly been fighting our corner in this matter – either in the governmental process or the court of public opinion. The matter needs constant push, push push pushing to keep the pressure on. It’s time to step up to the plate or go home. The EHTPA also seems to be ineffective. It’s a European wide body, and I don’t think it’s as focused on the regulation inhe UK issue as it should be.
I will close this post by saying that I actually don’t support statutory regulation. It would mean that we lose freedoms: witin 10 years we’d be stuck using certain, specified treatment protocols with specified treatments and dosages for set diagnoses with little flexibility. We’d also probably have to buy our stock from specified, licenced producers, and as for grow your own/make it yourself, forget it. So I really don’t support SR. However, after watching this debate for the past 7 years since I started my training, what has become clear to me is that if we don’t professionalise and get some legislaion put in place recognising the professionalism of degree level herbalists and above, guaranteeing us access to our herbs, we may wake up in 40 years and find they’ve all been taken away from us and we’re left with chamomile tea and not much else. We’ve already lost access to herbs like Kava, and we could so easily lose all the schedule IIIs.