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Chinese Herbs Show Promise for Hepatitis B Patients

But scientists say more research needed before they can endorse therapy

TUESDAY, Oct. 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study suggests some people suffering from the liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus could benefit by adding Chinese herbal medications to their drug regimens.

However, the study's authors acknowledge they based their conclusions on research from China that isn't as strictly controlled as in the United States.

An estimated 78,000 Americans are infected with hepatitis B each year. The blood-borne disease is mainly transmitted through sex, shared needles and childbirth.

The virus can cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, liver failure and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The cancer drug interferon is commonly used to treat hepatitis B. But it doesn't work in some patients, says study author Michael McCulloch, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health and an expert in Chinese herbal medicine.

McCulloch and colleagues in China and the United States examined hundreds of Chinese studies on the treatment of hepatitis B. The disease is common in Asia, where an estimated 262 million people suffer from its chronic form.

For reasons that aren't clear, interferon seems to work less effectively in Asians than in other racial groups, McCulloch says.

The researchers found 27 studies in which hepatitis B patients who only received interferon were compared to those who received the drug plus herbal treatments or received the herbal treatments alone.

The researchers report their findings in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

They found Chinese herbal treatments were 1.5 to 2 times more effective than interferon alone in reducing the level of the hepatitis B virus in the body. Bufotoxin, an herbal treatment derived from toads, seemed to be especially effective, the researchers say.

"It looks like herbs could function by themselves as a substitute for interferon when it hasn't worked or when side effects (of interferon) are not tolerated," McCulloch says.

The study did not look at side effects of the herbal treatments, but they are reportedly less common than when interferon is used, he says.

Frank Myers, an expert in infectious diseases and an epidemiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, says that while the study findings are encouraging, much more research needs to be done to see if the Chinese herbal treatments actually work.

McCulloch cautions the quality of Chinese medical research is about 30 years behind that in the United States. "We can't be certain that the treatments are working or not, and there are a lot of details of individual patients that aren't fully reported."

However, if interferon alone doesn't help hepatitis B patients, they should consider consulting a doctor who knows about Chinese medicine, says McCulloch, a licensed acupuncturist.

What To Do

For more information about hepatitis B, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learn more about alternative medicine from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

SOURCES: Michael McCulloch, doctoral student, epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health; Frank Myers, epidemiologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; October 2002 American Journal of Public Health
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