In recent years South Africans have faced a barrage of complementary and alternative medicines that promise to treat ailments such as depression, improve memory and mental vitality, increase energy and even revive flagging libidos.
There are many products that promise to turn fat couch-potatoes into slim supermodels or scrawny types into incredible hulks. The answer to many prayers comes in a variety of jars and canisters proliferating on pharmacy shelves and in mail-order shops.
p>It is an industry worth R2-billion. There is an estimated variety of 15 000 products on the market. They are advertised on television, in magazines, newspapers and even flyers handed out at traffic lights, making these products hard to miss. Many carry pictures of healthy-looking people, testimony to the magic cure they have taken.
But now the government has proposed a change to the Medicines Control Act that would mean all complementary medicines including self-treatments, nutritional supplements, vitamins, herbal supplements, energy drinks, homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy oils and flower remedies would have to undergo strict trials, like those already applying to pharmaceuticals.
They will need to be manufactured under the guidance of pharmacists and will also have to comply with a strict new marketing code. But the proposals are drawing fire from the complementary health sector, whose members say they are all for being regulated but insist that the proposed amendments are too stringent and will result in 80 percent of the industry closing down.
The Medicines Control Council says there is little science behind many alternative remedies and that thorough checks on the safety of untested cures should be carried out. Some might work but others could be quackery or downright dangerous. It is a consumer's right to know which preparations are effective, the council says.
Russell Coote, the law enforcement officer for the Medicines Control Council, said the public had a right to protection. There is a lot of propaganda and a lot of misinformation out there. There are a lot of products out there which are illegal and with no proven benefits. If this law is promulgated a lot of them will have to come off the shelves. Manufacturers need to be held accountable and deliver on their promises.
He said markets worldwide had been flooded with these products. In some cases overseas herbal medicines were found to have traces of pharmaceuticals that proved toxic. One, a libido enhancer for men, resulted in users growing breasts. Another, a slimming aid, was a derivative form of traditional Chinese medicine and was toxic to the liver.
Every product should be registered, with its formula and the factory where it was made, Coote said. If something is not registered, ask yourself why.. He said the integrity of pharmacists who sold these products should also be questioned. The Health Products Association and the Complementary and Traditional Medicines Stakeholders Committee (MSC), the representative body for the complementary medicines industry, warned that if the amendments went through in their current form, almost 80 percent of the industry players would face shutting down as they would not be able to afford to abide by the strict controls.
Maria Ascensao, executive member of the Health Products Association and secretary of the MSC, said the industry was all for regulations but that they should include input from qualified experts in their field. The regulations should be be fair and appropriate, Ascensao said. She said some alternative medicines, practices and treatments had been around for a long time. This was not necessarily appreciated by pharmacists or the medical world. If you don't understand something, you reject it or you fear it.
She said it was unfair to paint the industry with the same brush as the rogues on the outskirts of the sector, especially those who promoted slimming and libido cures. They formed 3 percent of the industry and tarnished it with their misleading advertising and wonder cures. It makes us want to cringe. She said a large part of the sector disseminated factual information and did not advertise bogus products. The public had a right to information and a right to choose.
If they apply the same standards as they do to pharmaceuticals they'll kill the industry.
Ivan Kotze, executive director of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa, said it strongly supported the amendments. Pharmaceutical companies had a free rein before thalidomide, which caused birth
defects, was marketed in the 1950s. This forced the government to put stringent laws in place in 1965. He said the public could not evaluate whether a product was safe or worked.
At the moment there were many loopholes exploited by business people who marketed products aggressively. This had potential for disaster. He defended pharmacists who made a profit on the phenomenal sales of the products, saying that if a consumer did not buy a product at a pharmacy he or she would go to the health store next door.
The pharmacist accepts that if it is on the market it is legitimate. We cannot be blamed for selling the products. The government can't pass the buck. It's their responsibility to protect the consumer.
Pharmacists have no authority to approve products.
Andrew Oberholzer, managing director of the Southern African Sexual Health Association, said the association offered advice on any product that had scientific evidence that it worked and was registered with the Medicines Control Council. In cases of erectile dysfunction, the association always advised the
person to see a doctor first. We are all for government's amendments to the Act. Some of the
products advertised out there are very misleading, Oberholzer said. (Source: Sunday Independent, 26 September 2004)