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Traditional Chinese medicine closes in on US$50 billion market with long-awaited nod from WHO

When Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the World Health Organisation a bronze statue last year showing acupuncture points on the body, the move was widely seen as an expression of Beijing's ambition to win global acceptance for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Now, that dream may be moving closer to reality.

TCM, which originated in ancient China and has evolved over the years, is set to receive its first-ever official endorsement from the WHO next May at the World Health Assembly when the international public health agency dedicates a chapter to it in its 11th version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

A classification system on traditional medicine will be featured in Chapter 26 of the work, which provides a system of diagnostic codes for classifying thousands of diseases, according to a report published this week in the British scientific journal Nature. 

Workers prepare traditional Chinese herbal medicines at Beijing's Capital Medical University traditional Chinese medicine hospital. Photo: Reuters

Although the safety and effectiveness of TCM is still controversial in China " of 1.57 million adverse drug reactions and incidents in the country last year, 16.1 per cent were related to traditional Chinese medicine " the government has set a national strategy for TCM development.

It wants to see TCM theory and practice win greater acceptance in world medical circles so it can claim a share of the US$50 billion global medicine market.

Traditional Chinese medicine in photographs

On that note, Beijing is establishing 30 overseas TCM centres in countries along the route of its massive infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.

By 2020, the government also seeks to register 100 TCM products and set up 50 international TCM cooperation model centres.

As TCM acquires legal status from Belt and Road countries, it is expected to evolve into a booming industry by 2030, according to the plan.

A therapist applies a moxibustion treatment " burning dried mugwort on points on the body " on a patient in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Photo: Reuters

A State Council white paper in 2016 said TCM was being practised globally in 183 countries and regions.

Although Xi presented WHO officials with the acupuncture statue just last year, the agency's increasing appreciation of China's ancient style of medicine has been at least a decade in the making.

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In the past, TCM experts from Shanghai have visited WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland to lobby officials to include TCM in the disease classification code book, which has its roots in the early 20th century. The effort had to contend with negative claims by critics that TCM was a backwards approach to wellness and was hardly science.

Cui Yongqiang, a professor at the Guanganmen Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, affiliated with the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, said receiving recognition from WHO would set standards for TCM while spurring its modernisation.

"Traditional Chinese medicine can't develop by itself," Cui said. "It needs to be evolved and integrated with Western medicine to make it more effective and accepted by a wider audience."

But getting the nod from WHO still leaves TCM a long way from winning over drug regulators in different countries, Cui said. Regulatory bodies will demand that TCM drugs, for instance, be evaluated within the framework of Western medicine.

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Tian Kan, a Nanjing University professor of Chinese medicine, said winning acceptance from WHO might help spread the practice of TCM worldwide, but does not guarantee that non-believers can be converted to TCM users.

"The spread of TCM in the Western world does not rely on being recognised by local drug regulators but on the experience and recommendations of patients," Tian said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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