TCM enriches AIDS treatments

Updated: 2011-11-29 14:21


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KUNMING - Chinese medicine practitioners are trying to use the country's 2,000-year-old traditional medicine to treat AIDS in the hope of finding a way to help conquer the incurable epidemic that just entered its fourth decade.

Since 2004, China's State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has conducted a pilot program for the application of TCM to AIDS treatment that has benefited more than 14,000 HIV carriers and AIDS patients in 19 provinces by the end of last year, according to Wang Jian, deputy director of the TCM Center for AIDS Prevention and Treatment under China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

Under the program, an HIV-infected person can voluntarily choose free TCM treatment if their counts of CD4, a type of cell in the immune system, reaches 350 per cubic millimeter or above. But when their CD4 count declines below this level, they will be given the Western antiretroviral therapy, the predominant treatment of AIDS in the world, alone or in combination with the TCM treatment.


While the antiretroviral therapy focuses on the suppression of the HIV virus, the TCM treatment puts more emphasis on the protection of the immune system, which is highly vulnerable to HIV, according to Ma Kejian, director of the research institute of traditional Chinese medicine in Southwestern Yunnan province.

In addition, TCM treatment can also improve quality of life by significantly alleviating AIDS symptoms with nearly no side effects, Ma said. "Thus it can prolong patients' life and eventually reduce the death rate."

Yunnan registered 83,925 HIV carriers and AIDS patients as of the end of last year, the most of any Chinese province or region. By August, the province has provided 6,684 HIV-infected people with TCM treatment, accounting for half of the country's total.

A survey on over 3,000 HIV/AIDS patients receiving the TCM treatment in Yunnan shows that the therapy has succeeded in improving patients' immunity by raising their CD4 counts, as well as in relieving symptoms, such as persistent fever, weight loss and rash.

Chen Ying (pseudonym), who was found to have contracted HIV in 2008, is living a normal life, as every day she takes a cocktail of Chinese medical herbs in accordance with a prescription made by the Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kunming, Yunnan's capital city. The hospital has provided TCM treatment to more than 600 HIV/AIDS patients since 2005.

"I have been receiving TCM treatment for three years, and my early symptoms of bleeding gums, oral ulcers, rash and aching joints have nearly all gone," said the 49-year-old woman.

Given the huge potential the TCM treatment has shown, the central government will probably increase the number of participators of the pilot program to 30,000 nationwide from 2011 to 2015, doubling the quota for the past five years, according to Ma.


Antiretroviral therapy, which uses a combination of at least three antiretroviral drugs, can effectively reduce the number of HIV particles in the bloodstream, even to undetectable levels.

Preventing the virus from replicating can raise cell counts of the immune system and help the system recover from the HIV infection.

However, the therapy is far from perfect, as HIV may become resistant to one combination of antiretroviral drugs, and various side effects of the drugs can be painful and harmful.

Compared with antiretroviral therapy, TCM treatment is less effective in suppressing HIV, but it can improve the overall physical condition of AIDS patients without causing additional suffering, said Tian Chun, head of the Office of AIDS Prevention and Treatment under the Kunming  Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Using the two therapies in combination is an optimal way to give full play to their own advantages, Ma said, adding that the combined treatment has been given to over 1,000 HIV/AIDS patients in Yunnan.

A sampling survey in Yunnan shows that the survival rate among patients who have received pure antiretroviral therapy for more than a year is 87.4 percent, while the percentage among those treated with a combination of the two therapies is 98.29 percent.

The survey also indicates that 16.59 percent of the patients receiving pure antiretroviral therapy have developed liver problems, while the ratio among those given the combined treatment is 11.6 percent.

A five-year plan on AIDS control, prevention and treatment issued by China's State Council earlier this year urged medical experts to further explore the combination of "Chinese and Western" therapies for AIDS.

Nevertheless, TCM experts find it difficult to justify the effectiveness of the TCM treatment to their foreign medical experts. "It works, but we can't completely explain how it works," Ma said.

TCM is fundamentally different from the evidence-based Western modern medicine in terms of theoretical concepts, such as the model of the body and concept of diseases.

With grants from the state and provincial government, TCM experts are conducting scientific research to ascertain the precise way TCM treats AIDS.

According to a report issued by UNAIDS a week ago, about 34 million people are living with HIV in the world. By the end of September, China reported about 429,000 registered HIV carriers and AIDS patients.