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After relentless lobbying by Chinese leaders, the World Health Organisation has finally integrated TCM into the 11th volume of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Amid much controversy, the World Health Assembly on May 25 formalised the inclusion of a chapter on TCM, a first for the ICD. The document is an influential database used for diagnosis, research and health insurance claims, with obvious trickle-down effects.
While those who swear by herbal remedies see this as a win, the chapter has glaring grey areas when it comes to animal-origin treatments—the latter is known to sustain smuggling networks, and there’s no clinical evidence that it actually works. Anticipating backlash, the WHO clarified that it didn’t endorse the use, safety, or scientific validity of any of the over 3,000 elements mentioned in the new chapter. However, the body made no attempt to exclude animal-based treatments either, drawing no distinction against relatively harmless options like acupuncture, tai chi and plant concoctions.
Scientists note that many TCM bodies have now excluded animal parts from treatments—but any acknowledgment remains harmful. "Any recognition...from an entity of the WHO's stature will be perceived by the global community as a stamp of approval from the United Nations,” said John Goodrich, chief scientist and Tiger Program senior director at Panthera. Goodrich called the failure to condemn animal use “egregiously negligent and irresponsible”.
The announcement is expected to embolden poachers and animal traffickers, who maintain the (often backdoor) appeal of Chinese medical tourism with animal skins, scales, horns and bones. Tiger, rhinoceros, and seahorse species are expected to be pushed into more vulnerable corners now, especially for populations in the Indian subcontinent. As for pangolins, who are being eaten into extinction, we didn't think things could get worse.
Western medicine is based on empirical cause and effect relationships, while TCM treatments rely on belief systems, body meridians and the flow of qi (body energy). While condensing millennia of TCM knowledge across China, Japan and South Korea is a remarkable feat, it’s unclear why ICD inclusion was deemed necessary. WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that TCM had been poorly documented in the past, and that inclusion could "link traditional medicine practices with global norms and standard development."
If the end goal was an encyclopaedia of sorts, then a separate public digital archive could have been the answer.
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