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Are Chinese officials trying to use bird flu to promote traditional Chinese medicine?

Shanghai bird flu
AP Photo / Eugene Hoshiko
Debating what to tell the worried residents of Shanghai.
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As cases of avian flu in China mount, Shanghai officials said in a press conference today that the Chinese herb, banlangen, the root of the woad plant, could ward off (link in Chinese) the rare and seemingly deadly strain of H7N9. (Here is a map of the outbreak and latest updates.)

Officials have previously said traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), including banlangen, could stop viruses that have broken out in the past like swine flu or SARS. This time, the advisory is drawing fire from Chinese consumers and medical experts, who say it’s unhelpful and possibly driven by a desire to boost the local TCM industry. Most doctors believe the root works as a health supplement for immune support but others say its effectiveness at preventing stronger viruses still needs confirmation (video in Chinese).

One blogger on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo wrote, “Ten years ago it was banlangen, and 10 years later it’s still banlangen. Ten years ago experts were spouting nonsense, and 10 years later they still are.” Doctor Fang Shimin, a popular science writer wrote, “The traditional Chinese medicine industry is trying to cash in,” the South China Morning Post reported.

It would be easy for officials or businesses to take advantage of nervous Chinese residents who have bought up health products of questionable effectiveness during past health scares. Residents hoarded vinegar, and face masks ran out during the SARS outbreak in 2003. In 2011, there was a run on salts believed to mitigate radiation residents feared was drifting into the mainland from the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Already, investors have piled into Chinese companies making pharmaceuticals and rice wine (also believed to help prevent catching bird flu), we reported. Today, panicked Chinese residents bought up ground banlangen, clearing out stocks of the product at a store in Shanghai and almost all at a pharmacy in Nanjing. Sina Weibo was lit up with over two million posts on the herb.

Officials may just be trying to offer residents some hope as health experts scramble to make a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist for the virus. Chinese officials, who developed a bad reputation after trying to cover up SARS, appear to be responding actively to the crisis that’s already killed six. Still, while their efforts might be serious, their advice doesn’t seem so. Officials in Shanghai also advised residents to sneeze on their elbows rather than their hands (which the US CDC also advises), and health authorities in Gansu province told people to take walks (link in Chinese) outside, listen to music, as well as massage the side (paywall) of one’s nose and light incense near parts of their legs and stomach.

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