A fishy business

Updated: 2011-07-13 07:52

By Liu Zhihua (China Daily)

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 A fishy business

The health book market is booming and traditional Chinese medicine is particularly popular among Chinese readers. A Jing / for China Daily

The fall from grace of 'health godmother' Ma Yueling highlights the fraudulent practices of a number of self-declared health gurus. Liu Zhihua investigates.

Chai Zheng, a 20-something Beijing bank employee, was shocked to the core after watching a TV program that revealed the deceptions of Ma Yueling, a famous health writer whose books she had bought, read and followed enthusiastically.

Chai has been a fan of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since her college years and considered Ma's books particularly informative.

"I couldn't believe what I saw. I even considered the TV program might be a fake," Chai says.

Ma, a 48-year-old self-proclaimed "health godmother" and a former Nanjing nurse, rose to fame in 2007 after publishing the bestseller, The Wisdom of Staying Healthy, in which she introduced "TCM magic treatments". Ma claimed she was born sickly and the TCM treatments featured in the book were crystallized from her personal experience of battling illness.

The book's success led to TV appearances and the creation of Mayueling Health Group, which includes a food company, a trading company, a health consultancy and a catering company.

Another of Ma's hot commodities is Ma Yueling Gao, a kind of paste made of Chinese dates, donkey-hide gelatin, black sesame, walnuts, crystal sugar and rice wine, which Ma claims can treat heart disease, asthma, gout and other ailments.

Ma's company website has 207,120 registered members and provides health tips, online counseling, digital books and videos.

However, suspicions surrounding her medical practices have risen along with her fame, particularly after she recently announced on the company website she could cure amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

This chronic, progressive disease is marked by gradual degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movements.

A fishy business

ALS sufferers eventually become disabled, have difficulty speaking and swallowing, and may succumb to infections, particularly pneumonia.

Ma wrote that ALS is caused by the body gradually "freezing up" after running low on energy and being exposed to cold temperatures. She claimed warming the body would cure the affliction, adding she had cured 11 patients by having them eat live loaches and injecting Chinese angelica extract.

"The medical community has long been looking in vain for a cure for ALS but even the cause of the disease is still unknown," says Cheng Yiyong, president of the Chinese Nutrition Society.

"Anyone with common sense will know that ALS cannot be cured simply by eating loaches and injecting Chinese angelica extract," Cheng says.

Cheng says the loach is a freshwater fish that is no more nutritious than any other fish and has no listed medicinal uses. Moreover, they live in mud and eating a live one could lead to parasitic infections.

In 2010 it was reported that a number of people got parasitic infections after taking Ma's "magic treatment". Even so, many people still continue to believe in the efficacy of the treatment.

In early July, Nanjing's health supervisory authorities began investigating Ma for treating patients and giving prescriptions without a doctor's license. The sale of her books was suspended.

According to Nanjing health bureau, most of the patients Ma mentioned as being cured were anonymous. Of three phone numbers said to be of cured patients on the website, one was unobtainable, another was a wrong number and the third said his wife used to inject Chinese angelica extract under the direction of Ma, but did not do so anymore.

Ma did not answer phone calls from China Daily or respond to messages on her Sina Weibo microblog, asking for comments on the news.

"Ma takes advantage of people's trust in TCM and their anxiety to be healthy and give herself a halo," says Du Jinhang, a TCM doctor of the cardiovascular disease department at Beijing's China-Japan Friendship Hospital.

One of the most important rules in TCM, he says, is that treatments have to be tailored to individual symptoms, and there is never a single cure that fits all cases. A TCM treatment varies not only from person to person, but also changes with the seasons and locations.

With their improving quality of life, Chinese are focusing more attention on their health and unqualified health experts have been taking advantage of this, Du warns.

Li Zhanyong, director of the China Press of Traditional Chinese Medicine editorial office, says the health book market is booming because of this newfound obsession with health.

Li quotes the example of Eat Away the Illnesses Eaten In by Zhang Wuben, which sold 3 million copies in six months.

Zhang, a retired textile worker, became famous for his "food therapy" TV program in early 2010. He charged at least 1,000 yuan ($154.6) for one prescription, and he invariably prescribed a hefty amount of mung beans, calcium pills, eggplant, bitter melon, white radish, Chinese yam and corn for every disease.

In May 2010, it was revealed that Zhang's educational background and self-testimonials were fabricated. He did not have any medical credentials.

Many of his victims who were once healthy fell sick after taking his prescriptions, and those who were sick missed the opportunity to get treated properly.

In the past few years, several once-popular health experts have achieved instant fame, attracted legions of followers, and finally, proved to be con artists.

In response, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) has tightened regulations for publishing health books.

The new regulations require editors of health books and publishers to be more questioning, says Li, of China Press of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The administration further announced that among the 500-odd publishers in China, just 53 publishers are now qualified to issue health books.

Also, in early July, GAPP declared 24 health books would be suspended, including Ma's The Wisdom of Staying Healthy.

"Most people are unable to distinguish between genuine and false experts, so the media should be more responsible and careful when dealing with so-called health experts and publishing news report," says Cheng, of the Chinese Nutrition Society.

"Governing bodies should also be stricter about health market regulation."


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