AN emergency ban has been imposed on the import, sale and supply of a herb used in traditional Chinese herbal medicines after two users in the UK suffered
kidney failure.

The Medicines Control Agency (MCA) imposed the immediate ban on Aristolochia on the advice of the Committee on Safety of Medicines. Aristolochia is a herb used in Chinese medicine to treat fluid retention and rheumatic symptoms. But research has found the herb to be toxic and associated with kidney damage.

Aristolochia has been a prescrip-tion-only medicine since 1997, but can be easily confused with two other harmless Chinese herbs, Stephania and Clematis, used to treat similar problems.

More than 70 people suffered kidney failure in Belgium in 1993 after taking a slimming preparation in which Aristolochia had been used instead of Stephania. Both plants have the same Chinese name, Fangji.

The two UK cases of kidney failure happened after people took medicines with the herbal ingredient “Mu Tong” which is used to describe at least four different plants including Clematis and Aristolochia. In both cases, the toxic herb was mistakenly used instead of the harmless plants.

Organisations representing Chinese medicine suppliers have voluntarily suspended
use of Mu Tong and Fangji in a bid to ensure there is no confusion.

The ban came into effect yesterday and will last three months while the MCA consults the industry on a more permanent ban. Officials are also considering whether to impose a permanent ban on the herbs which can be confused with Aristolochia.

Herbal medicines are not subject to the same controls as licensed medicines and there have long been fears over their safety. The MCA is currently consulting with the natural health sector in a bid to establish better regulation. The Department of Health advisea anyone worried about herbal medicines they are taking to consult their practitioner.