A recent article in ABC News online described six cases of liver and renal failure ascribed to herbal supplements. While these extremely sad instances of illness are said to be due to a specific class of therapeutic product, there are several aspects to the ABC report that require clarification.
The article describes a lack of direct cause between any herbal medicine and organ failure, as ‘the data does not indicate … whether it was a definitive cause’. In such cases it is difficult to precisely pinpoint absolute cause because variables such as genetics, liver enzyme function, renal status, medication use, and lifestyle factors need to be considered. In such instances where the causative agent is unknown it is not possible to generalise herbal medicine as the specific problem. Rigorous research is lacking in this important area and until this takes place and definitive cause is identified, the article headline cannot be stated with certainty.
Until this research occurs there are ways to prevent the possibility of such injury. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) discourages purchase of products that are not on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), either as Listed Medicines (AUST L) or Registered Medicines (AUST R). In particular the TGA discourages purchase of products from the Internet because, for example, protein powders and weight-loss products are a known risk as they may be adulterated with the plant Ephedra sinica or with pharmaceutical products. This is not an issue of poor Australian regulation of herbal medicines but rather a documented risk related to the purchase of any type of medicine or supplement not within the ARTG. Because of this it is advised to seek expert advice in the use of herbal medicines and other complementary medicines.
Suitably qualified practitioners with expertise in the use of herbal medicines are professionally trained to an established set of standards in Australia. The NHAA is the peak body for practising Western herbal medicine and naturopathic practitioners and holds a listing of qualified members trained in the use of herbal medicines for healthcare (http://www.nhaa.org.au/public/find-a-practitioner). Any questions about the safe and effective use of herbal medicine products can be directed to appropriately qualified professionals, including these members of the NHAA.