PETALING JAYA: When 73-year-old Lim Man noticed a small lump on his neck in February, he did what many of his generation would typically do – search for a herbal cure.
Articles in herb magazines about a herbal practitioner who claimed her potent brew of 33 herbs could cure everything, from flu to cancer, caught his attention.
The lump shrank after Lim started consuming her herbal drink.
However, it caused other problems – he lost 4kg, grew weak, and his urine turned brown.
Thirteen 1.5-litre bottles of the herbal concoction and three months later, Lim’s health continued to deteriorate.
He died from drug-induced acute liver failure on Sept 15.
“The first thing doctors asked was whether my father had consumed any traditional medicine,” his daughter Lim Hui Ling, 42, said in an interview at their home in Klang.
Several bottles of the brown herbal drink still remained in the refrigerator, all without a label stating the ingredients, dosage, nor side effect warnings.
The Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) estimates that the local herbal industry is expected to be worth RM29bil by 2020.
It is categorised under traditional and complementary medicine.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised the benefits of implementing traditional medicine into national healthcare services, but also noted that the lack of safety regulations, poor quality control and incorrect usage of herbal medication therapies could have fatal outcomes.
“The problem with traditional medicine is that there is a lack of regulation, and no accountability,” said gastroenterology consultant Prof Dr Ida Normiha Hilmi of Universiti Malaya.
She was referring to the booming market of unlicensed traditional medicine sellers peddling unregistered herbal products at street markets, shops and online.
Even registered products could be dangerous, she cautioned, as they were sold legally despite a lack of clinical studies on their efficacy and safety.
A quick search on Facebook yielded hundreds of sellers touting all sorts of “natural cures”, including fruit extract pills to treat cancer, eye drops to remove cataract and herbal cream for knee aches.
Some products, like porcupine bezoar pills, were touted as “life-savers” in treating cancer, leukaemia, high blood pressure, anti-ageing, urinary tract infection, and so on.
As proof of their supposed miraculous effects, these online sellers showed WhatsApp conversations of “patients” sharing phenomenal testimonies.
“What conventional doctors have learnt is that no one drug cures all.
“But some traditional medicine promises absolute cure. What they sell is hope,” said Dr Danny Wong Kit Chung from KPJ Healthcare University College.
To create a perception of curability, doctors said unscrupulous manufacturers had been found to add pharmaceutical drugs such as paracetamol and steroids without disclosing it in the ingredient list.
Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah advised the public to purchase sanctioned products from licensed premises, and to stay clear of dubious sellers.