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Back To Vidyya Some Chinese Herbs Cause Kidney Failure And Urinary System Cancer

FDA Mails "Dear Health Care Professional" Letters

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning health care professionals that some dietary supplements may contain Chinese herbs that can cause kidney failure and urinary system cancer. According to the FDA, health officials in Canada and the United Kingdom recently issued public warnings about aristolochic acid, the harmful ingredient in the Chinese herb Aristolochia fangchi.

More than 100 people in Belgium and two people in the United Kingdom developed kidney damage after ingesting dietary supplements that contained aristolochic acid, the FDA said. At least 72 of these people required a kidney transplant, as a result. The FDA says it has not received "any adverse event reports to date of a similar nature" in the United States. However, the agency recommends that health care providers obtain "a thorough history of use of dietary supplements as well as traditional medicines, including Chinese and Ayurvedic" from their patients. Of even greater concern, the FDA says, is the carcinogenic potential of aristolochic acid.

Some who developed kidney problems after consuming Chinese herbs were found to have cancer in the lining of the urinary tract. A report in the June 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine says that 18 of 39 people in Belgium who took weight-reducing pills containing Aristolochia fangchi developed cancers of the urinary system -- a malignancy rate of 46 percent. Eight of 24 people who took 200 grams or less of Aristolochia fangchi had urinary system cancer, compared with 10 of 15 people who took 201 grams or more, according to the report by Joelle Nortier, M.D., and associates of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium. "Our findings reinforce the idea that the use of natural herbal medicine may not be without risk," Dr. Nortier wrote in the journal article.

Those in the study already had experienced severe kidney failure after taking a combination of two other Chinese herbs, Stephania tetrandra and Magnolia officinalis and needed kidney dialysis or kidney transplants. The herbs were in weight-loss pills prescribed in Belgium from 1990 to 1992, when Belgium banned Chinese herbs. The FDA says that products containing small amounts of aristolochic acid could be used for years with no apparent ill effects, until serious, irreversible effects, such as kidney failure, occur.

The FDA says it plans to issue an alert that will provide for the automatic seizure of any product suspected of containing aristolochic acid.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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