Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the NICM, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a terrible day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from the internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying complementary, alternative, traditional or integrative ‘medicines’ and stop  using their ‘treatments’. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and how they continue to promote these ‘medicines’ and ‘treatments’, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon Awards, for which the NICM has again been nominated. Please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!

VC Barney Glover is standing up for science! (or is that for pseudoscience?)

I would argue, pseudoscience! Because if you do not see the following as pseudoscience, then all hope is lost.

The BlueBoxTM homeopathic remedy kit, produced by Pegasus Homeopathics, contains 28 easy-to-use remedies for the treatment of just about everything, and therefore; “The BlueBox™ is a must have for every home”. Their marketing strategy is focussed on children and on the ease-of-mind of their parents, with Pegasus telling us that it: “Treats the whole family from infants to the elderly; Safe for babies as well as pregnant and breast feeding mums; Readily taken by children, no alcohol or nasty-tasting syrups; Can’t overdose – even if a child swallows the contents of a bottle it’s the same as one dose.” One of the 28 remedies in this kit is called Anti-virabac 200C, described as a; “natural antibiotic, safe for those allergic to penicillin. Indications: A homeopathic ‘antibiotic’ for use in viral and bacterial infections, that is best implemented at the earliest stage of the infection. Safe for use in penicillin-allergic individuals.”

There is a lot wrong with this, but let’s just focus on what this remedy contains. It is a mixture of nine homeopathic remedies, including Belladonna 200C and Gunpowder 30C, with the purpose of the latter being; “Localises the infection preventing deeper penetration into tissues.” The 200C and 30C indicates that these substances have been diluted by a factor of 10400 and 1060 respectively, and consequently neither contain a single molecule of the original substance. This might be a good thing, especially for Belladonna which is a highly poisonous herb, and something that you definitely do not want to give to your children.  Incorrectly diluted Belladonna (in a different homeopathic remedy) has recently been implicated in the deaths of ten infants in the US. As for the Gunpowder 30C, well, some homeopaths are known for diluting the Berlin Wall for the treatment of depression, and a whole host of other conditions, so why not gunpowder?

But let’s step into the mind of a homeopath, and try and explain the logic behind the Gunpowder 30C. Here goes: Gunpowder is used to fire a bullet which will, depending on the entry location,, cause serious harm or death. If you are only wounded, the wound can become infected, the infection might spread throughout your body, and eventually you may die. Using the homeopathic principle of ‘like-cures-like’, it therefore ‘stands to reason’ that when you dilute gunpowder, by a factor of 1060, it will localise and prevent the infection from spreading any further. Because the underlined words look alike, it is irrefutable scientific evidence that Gunpowder 30C is a remarkably effective remedy. I am however only guessing here, but it is clear that the amount of science involved is truly mindboggling (any homeopath reading this, please correct me if I am wrong). A quick search reveals that homeopathic gunpowder is more commonly used for the treatment of septic wounds in people and animals, which I guess, makes more sense in a homeopathic sort of way.

Let’s say that I do not have any scientific background and that I’ve decided to buy the BlueBoxTM. Before coming to this decision, I’ve spoken to a homeopath (a specialist), I’ve discussed it with the extremely helpful people at the pharmacy, I’ve read all the info on the website of Pegasus (the producers), and I’ve even gone as far as to read the lengthy WHO report, which recommends that homeopathy should be integrated with conventional healthcare. All-in-all, it paints a very positive picture and I, and many others, will feel confident in the safety and effectiveness of this product. And hence, I will happily give these remedies to my children. Why not?

But what now if my young child die, due to an infection that I’ve treated with anti-virabac 200C? The infection worsened very quickly, within 48 hours, and upon hospitalisation it was already too late to save his life. At the end of the day, this remedy contains nothing other than the diluent, and will do absolutely nothing against any infection. A fact that is reflected in the Australian NHMRC homeopathy report, where they clearly state that: “People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.” Tragically, this happens quite often, with an unknown number of people dying because they have chosen ineffective homeopathic remedies. Gunpowder 30C for the treatment of infectious diseases and/or septic wounds, really? The number of victims is unknown because the BlueBoxTM, and all other homeopathic remedies, are bought over-the-counter. There is no paper trail and hence no system in place to document ‘adverse events’. So, if you or your child dies, the cause of death will simply read infectious disease or septic wound – and that will probably be the end of it.

Who is to blame for this situation?  The homeopath, pharmacist and all other role players are legally doing what they are doing. They are allowed to sell you water as a treatment for many different medical conditions.  You, on the other hand, as a parent who’s child died because of these  ineffective remedies, can however be taken to court and you might even be send to jail – and this is the ‘Homeopathy Paradox’.

This is also where the important role of Vice Chancellors (VC) come into play. They are instrumental in deciding on what path science will take in a specific country. Their role is becoming more important, especially in light of some politicians nowadays resorting to all kinds of alternative facts.  Take someone like Prof Barney Glover, VC of Western Sydney University (WSU), and also the current Chair of ‘Universities Australia – The Voice of Australia’s Universities’. He has influence over the whole scientific landscape in Australia, and quite recently gave a very good speech at the National Press Club (photo above),  about the necessity and importance for universities to stand up for facts and the truth, because nobody else will.  This is very encouraging but, unfortunately, very misleading.

Prof Glover was notified in 2015, that he should urgently investigate the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), because of their continued (in)direct support of homeopathy and many other disproven complementary medicines. For example: the NICM had a big influence in compiling the WHO report, calling for the better integration of homeopathy (implying that it is an effective healthcare system) with conventional healthcare, and by way of their extended network, has tried to discredit and destroy the NHMRC report on homeopathy. Their incorrect and misleading response to the NHMRC report is now being used by homeopaths, all over the world, to continue to mislead the public regarding the effectiveness of homeopathy.

Unfortunately, neither the VC nor anyone else in WSU’s management has yet taken the very important step of standing up for science. Therefore the VC, and others, were nominated for the Bent Spoon Award in 2016. A nomination that they tried to block, but after independent review, did not manage to do so.  VC’s that do not stand up for science can therefore have a far-reaching impact, such as convincing me, who live on the other side of the world, to buy the BlueBoxTM, which in turn, might lead to my child’s death. Let’s call it the ‘butterfly effect’, with a ‘minor’ act (allowing pseudoscience at their university) on one side of the world, causing a lot of carnage on the other side of the world, or the world over.

(The reason for WSUs refusal to investigate the NICM seems to be as simple as increasing their external income. And it works, because quite recently the controversial supplement company Blackmores donated $10 million, and a year or so ago, the extremely controversial organisation, the Jacka Foundation, donated $4 million. These numbers appear to be enough for WSU to continue to hold their hand of protection over the NICM).

WSU is by no means the only university that has put money before science and ethics. Take for example the University of Johannesburg (UJ) who has a ‘Department of Homeopathy’ (they featured on this Blog before – see for instance  here).  A couple of days ago I emailed the Dept. of Homeopathy, asking for advice regarding homeopathic malaria remedies for my 6yo son before we travel to the Kruger park. They advised me that they do not sell it themselves, but that I should contact a specific pharmacy and ask for….wait for it….a banned herbal remedy and for homeopathic antimalarial drops – the latter, of course, does not contain anything other than solvent. This advice comes straight from a University, and although this issue is still unfolding, I am hopeful to have more luck with UJ’s VC – but I am not holding my breath. So, if you happen to work at any one of these two universities, could you kindly forward this article to your VC? For what it is worth.

(this article was first published on Prof Edzard Ernst’s blog site – you can find it here)

The NICM’s business partner sent to jail for importing Rhino horn into Australia!

In the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) world all ‘treatments’ are effective, including rhino horn and other endangered animals, as opposed to the modern scientific world in which very few, if any, of these TCM modalities are effective. However, the main aim of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) is to ‘integrate’ all of these pseudoscientific healthcare systems (TCM, acupuncture, homeopathy etc.) with modern evidence-based healthcare. This is very worrying to say the least. I can also confidently predict that this drive to ‘integrate’ these two opposing worlds will sooner or later be reflected in a new name (again) for the NICM.

Because of the NICM’s true belief in the pseudoscientific basis of TCM (or maybe the prospect of tapping into the $170 billion TCM market), Western Sydney University approved a thesis in 2008, where rhino horn was being promoted as “remarkably” better for the treatment of vascular dementia as compared to a control group. The critique that I had on this thesis, was that they should have given this aspect a critical scientific appraisal, which they completely failed to do. I thus labelled this thesis as nothing more than promoting Rhino horn as effective medicine, and hence, they are contributing to the sharp rise in rhino poaching. The supervisors of this thesis might claim that it was a simple oversight or that the external reviewers failed to pick up on this issue. Or they might even claim that they did not know about the controversy surrounding the use of Rhino horn. But I strongly doubt this. This is a simple example of their true (make)belief in the magical medicinal powers of rhino horn and all other TCM therapies.

So I dug a bit deeper and found the proceedings of a symposium held in Sydney in 1997, with the title “healthy people, healthy wildlife”. This symposium dealt exclusively with the use of endangered species as medicine in TCM. The supervisor of the above mentioned thesis was also present and gave a presentation; “Responsible use of TCM”. Below is a couple of excerpts from the proceedings (you can find the full proceedings here).

Start of excerpts;

“I have been using Traditional Chinese Medicine regularly for several years. There have been many times when the wisdom of Traditional Chinese medicine has helped me recover from a physical complaint and I know just how beneficial the results can be” (page 4)


XI JIAO is the horn of the Rhinoceros unicornis L or R. sondicus Desmarest, or R. sumatrienses (Fischer) Cuvier (Rhinocerotidae)

TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold

Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying.

Indication and application: High fever, sun stroke, trauma, mania, convulsion, sore throat, epilepsy, febrile disease, infectious disease, macula, bad skin conditions, subcutaneous bleeding.


As the horns from rhinoceros, antelope and Buffalo (SHUI NIU JIAO) shared similar chemical compositions and amino acids, especially keratin, it has been proved that buffalo’s horn used as a clinical substitute for rhinoceros’ horn and antelope’s horn is therapeutically effective.

Alan Bensoussan’s presentation (page 23-29)

“At a recent conference in Hong Kong there was opportunity for practitioners and traders to express concerns related to the use of endangered species. It is worthwhile looking at these comments briefly. Some sentiments that I have heard expressed in Australia are also reflected in the comments of a TCM academic in Hong Kong: “The dilemma faced by TCM users, however, could only be better appreciated if we can step into their shoes and then make judgements if we ourselves or our beloved ones are suffering from ailments that modern medicine offers little or no help whereas products from these animals may offer relief”.

“It is important to table these views because herein lie the resistance to comply with the law, and to continue to sacrifice a constantly diminishing resource. It defies all logic. Even if we adopt the crudest perspective of some human right to continuously exploit natural resources, in this case if the medicine is valuable and in diminishing supply, the resource needs protecting. And in this sense alone the profession needs to do the utmost within its capabilities to cease all use of endangered species, and utilise alternative products, or farmed or cultivated species, at least until such time as the supply of the medicine is stable. “

Honk Kong TCM retailer

“According to CITES the trade of tigers, etc is prohibited and those TCM practitioners who use such medicines to treat and save peoples’s lives, pharmacies and traders of such medicinal resources are liable to punishment. Such international convention protects animals but harms human beings, makes animals more worthy than mankind, and degrades mankind as if they were lower than animals. It is questionable that whether such kind of rules worth existing”

“… the rights of human beings of using such resources to maintain their health, treat their diseases and sustain their survival, are ignored. The people who formulate such kind of rules are indeed ignoring human rights.”

Hong Kong TCM practitioners:

“People, however, should not work towards wildlife protection but neglect the protection of human lives.”

On rhino horn: “Reasonable application should therefore be allowed and it is inappropriate to ban the medicine entirely,” “The normal traffic of species for medical use should be set strictly aside from profit-deriving business trade.”

Singapore Chinese Doctors association

“TCM practitioners are working for the good health care for all mankind. It is not fair to treat us like profiteers or put the law on us.”

End of excerpts.

“TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold. Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying” – clearly TCM is a pseudoscience, and clearly, the NICM truly belief in all of it!

Although this conference discussed the use of substitutes in place of endangered animals, and the use of the latter is quite clearly rejected, there seems to be strong resistance coming from TCM practitioners and retailers. They truly belief that Rhino horn is an effective, life saving medicine and that it cannot really be substituted by anything else – and so does Alan Bensoussan.  Replacing rhino horn with any other horn would be equivalent to admitting that it doesn’t really work – and this is unacceptable in the TCM world. Granted, they all agree that endangered animals need to be protected, but there is however one important aspect that you will not find in the symposium proceedings. And that is the extremely important question that most members of the public would ask; ‘are any of these endangered animal parts truly effective for the treatment of any disease?’.

As a scientist you might add ‘where is the scientific evidence that rhino horn is a life saving medicine for the treatment of infectious diseases etc?’ or ‘what is the mechanism of action of rhino horn and specifically keratin?’ etc. etc. Surely, these aspects should at least be discussed and TCM practitioners should be educated accordingly? In general, you first need to provide scientific evidence and then only can you go and sell your medicine!

These questions aren’t even being asked, mentioned or discussed and this again proves that in the TCM world everything is active. It is a given!  The person who dares to question the effectiveness of a specific TCM modality, in effect, questions the pseudoscientific principles of TCM. The implication of this, especially for the NICM, will be that they weaken or even lose the opportunity to tap into the $170 billion TCM market. This market only exists for the true believers and thus the NICM will not risk being exposed as a semi-or non-believer. Asking these type of questions makes you suspect! In the TCM world (and the NICMs world) rhino horn is thus seen and promoted as a life saving medicine for the treatment of just about anything, from sunstroke to infectious diseases!

So why didn’t the NICM add one or two sentences in the thesis published in 2008 about the use of the excepted substitutes in place of rhino horn? Because it is too risky! They run the risk that TCM practitioners might see them as implying that rhino horn is ineffective and that it can or should be replaced by your fingernails. One can argue that the symposium was held 20 years ago, and that the NICM has since changed their tune, but unfortunately this doesn’t happen with pseudoscientists. One tell-tale sign of a pseudoscience is its inability to progress.

The NICM also seems to be putting their money where their mouths are. They don’t only discuss and write about rhino horn as medicine, they also seems to be involved in importing it into Australia! They will obviously not do the dirty work themselves, but leaves that to one of their business partners who where luckily caught red-handed and who was sent to jail. The director of the NICM, Alan Bensoussan was of course in court to act as a character witness for his business partner.  An excerpt below;

“Character witnesses – including Alan Bensoussan, director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Western Sydney – told the court Yu was “absolutely exceptional”. “There are very few clinicians of his ilk in Australia,” Professor Bensoussan said of his friend and sometime business associate of 20 years.” “He [the barrister] said Yu had tried to pull the wool over officials’ eyes.”

And again, we have a person linked to the NICM who tried to BS officials. One would think that Alan as a ‘honest scientist’ would try his best to explain to Mr Yu that TCM is based on pre-scientific ideas and that it is a belief-based healthcare system, and as such, is dangerous not only for people but also for (endangered) animals (they are currently skinning donkeys alive in Africa for the TCM market) – but, no, this will apparently never happen because the NICM and Mr Yu is still working together.

At the end of the day this has nothing to do with science but, as usual, it has everything to do with money. And the NICMs perseverance is starting to pay off! In the last year or two the NICM has received in excess of $15 million dollars with the most notable single donation from the well-known Australian complementary medicine company, Blackmores.  Because Blackmores also want to tap into the $170 billion TCM market it paid the NICM on a consultancy basis to assist in their ‘Blackmores TCM Development Program’. Problem is, the only way to tap into the TCM market is to be a true believers, and that includes supporting the notion that rhino horn has remarkable life saving medicinal properties. Wouldn’t it be nice if a large company like Blackmores make a small donation towards the rhino conservation effort? After all, it is quite dangerous and expensive, some might say futile, to keep all the poachers at bay who feeds the pseudoscientific TCM market that the NICM, WSU and Blackmores supports, promotes, and wants to exploit!

What can you do about all of this?

The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex, so the best thing to do is to stop using their products and treatments – e.g. prevention. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. I have also started a FaceBook page where I regularly post contents regarding the NICM, and complementary medicine in general (@CompleMedQuacks).

Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards (the NICM has again been nominated), and please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – see options below.

Western Sydney University promoting Rhino horn as medicine: Has this contributed to the exponential rise in Rhino poaching?

Something happened in 2008. Something, or a number of things, triggered an exponential rise in the number of rhinos being killed in South Africa. Poaching numbers remained quite low, and was stable for a decade, with only 13 being killed in 2007. But then suddenly, the number jumped to 83 in 2008, followed by an exponential increase every year, reaching a staggering total of 1 175 in 2015 – one Rhino poached every six hours. To explain this will be difficult and, in all likelihood, will be due to a number of factors or events coinciding in 2008. Maybe the global financial crises had something to do with it – people tend to turn to ‘commodities’ in times of financial uncertainty (rhino horn is apparently worth around $60 000/kg). Maybe there was a sudden increase in the popularity of rhino horn as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Asian countries. Or maybe effective conservation/anti-poaching efforts of the Indian Rhino in Nepal and India started to pay off and this led to a shift in focus to the African Rhino which inadvertently took its place in TCM – or all of the above factors and much more.

Another possible contributing factor, which I will discuss here, is the growing acceptance of TCM in western countries! For example: Phynova recently advertised a new product as the first traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) being registered in the UK. By directing customers to a separate site for more information regarding their product they ‘accidentally’ linked to a site which ‘advertised’ rhino horn (this link has since been removed). Another example is Western Sydney University, Australia who accepted and published a thesis in 2008, in which they described the current use of Rhino horn as a highly effective medicine, just like you would describe any real medicine. Surely this will have an impact!

But first a bit of background, so please bear with me. There are two ‘opposing’ aspects regarding TCM that most members of the public do not seem to understand well. Not their fault, because the TCM lobby groups are spending a huge amount of effort to keep the lines between these two aspects as blurred as possible. The first aspect is the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles; the yin and yang and the vitalistic “energy” flow through “meridians” and much more. Scientists have relegated this to the pseudosciences, just like bloodletting, which was seen as a cure-all hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, the pseudoscientific TCM principles are still with us and based on these principles almost every single TCM modality works! From acupuncture to herbs to animal matter (including rhino horn) – everything is efficacious, safe and cost effective. Evidence for this is that close to a 100% of clinical trials done on TCM in China give positive results. Strange isn’t it! People in China should thus no die of any disease – they have ‘effective’ medicine for everything! This is the world of TCM in a nutshell.

The second aspect of TCM is the application of the modern scientific method to test which of the thousands of TCM modalities are really active, which ones are useless and which ones are dangerous. Decades of investigation have come up empty-handed with one or two exceptions. One notable exception is Artemisia annua which contain a single compound that is highly effective for the treatment of malaria, and once identified and intensely studied, it was taken up into conventional medicine – not the herb, but the compound. If you investigate all the plants in the world you are bound to find some compounds that can be used as medicine – it has nothing to do with TCM principles and it can most definitely not be used as evidence that the TCM principles are correct or that it based on science.

These two aspects are therefore quite different.

In the TCM world just about everything works, but it is not backed up by science. It is a huge industry ($170 billion) and it creates employment for many – something that makes politicians smile. In the modern scientific world, almost nothing in TCM works, and hence it is not profitable at all – you have to investigate thousands of herbs (very expensive) in order to find one useful compound.

Many TCM practitioners and researchers are avidly trying to combine the positives of these two worlds. They focus mainly on the money and employment aspect of the TCM world and try and combine this with the modern scientific approach. They tend to focus on the one example where modern science discovered a useful compound (artemisinin) in the medicinal plant Artemisia annua, which was also coincidently used as an herb in TCM – as evidence that TCM works! Here are some examples:

“To stigmatise all traditional medicine would be unfair. After all, a Chinese medicine practitioner last year won a Nobel prize.” No, a Chinese scientist using the modern scientific method identified artemisinin after testing hundreds or even thousands of different herbs.

This year, Chinese medicine practitioners will be registered in Australia. ….. Chinese herbal medicine is administered routinely in hospitals for many chronic diseases. …… This has led to recognising herbs such as Artemisia as a proven anti-malarial ……” No, the compound artemisinin is a proven anti-malarial!

There has been enormous progress in the last 20 years or so. I am sure you are familiar with the use of one of the Chinese herbs in managing resistant malaria.” No, very little progress and no, the compound artemisinin!

So this is a game that is being played with the simple intention to blur the lines between these two aspects regarding TCM – but the real reason might simply be “A new research-led Chinese medicine clinic in Sydney, better patient outcomes and the potential for Australia to tap into the $170 billion global traditional Chinese medicine market”

Prof Alan Bensoussan the director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) and registered in Australia as a TCM and acupuncture practitioner is a champion in blurring this line. Alan has been instrumental in lobbying the Australian regulatory agency that a long tradition of use is all you need to be able to register new products. He was also influential in establishing the Chinese medicine practitioner registry in Australia, in 2012, and thereby legitimising TCM in Australia. He has been actively chipping away at the resistance that the Australian public have against these pseudoscientific healthcare systems such as TCM – one can argue that he has done so quite successfully because they are expanding their operations into the Westmead precinct of Sydney with a new TCM clinic/hospital.

Enough background; so what does all of this have to do with Rhino horn? (and for that matter other endangered species). We have to remember that in the TCM world just about everything works and that includes rhino horn! Searching Western Sydney University’s theses portal for Xijiao (Chinese for Rhino horn) I found a thesis published in 2008 from the NICM and co-supervised by Alan; “Development of an evidence-based Chinese herbal medicine for the management of vascular dementia”

On page 45-46: “Recently, with fast developing science and technologies being applied in the pharmaceutical manufacturing area, more and more herbs or herbal mixtures have been extracted or made into medicinal injections. These have not only largely facilitated improved application to patients, but also increased the therapeutic effectiveness and accordingly reduced the therapeutic courses …… lists the most common Chinese herbal medicine injections used for the treatment of VaD. “

“Xing Nao Jing Injection (for clearing heat toxin and opening brain, removing phlegm) contains ….. Rhinoceros unicornis (Xijiao), …… Moschus berezovskii (Shexiang), …..”

“…. Xing Nao Jing injection has been widely applied in China for stroke and vascular dementia. …. After 1-month treatment intervention, they found the scores in the treatment group increased remarkably, as compared with the control group …… “

They list two endangered species; the Rhino and the Chinese forest musk deer (Moschus berezovskii). But what is truly worrying is that they don’t even mention the endangered status or at least recommend that the non-endangered substitutes, which do exist in the TCM world, should be used instead – or maybe use fingernails as a substitute? It is not discussed at all. Clearly they are stating that using these endangered animals are way more effective than western medicine (the control group) for the treatment of vascular dementia!  This is deplorable to say the least. Statements like this fuels the decimation of this species.  But this shows that they truly believe and support the underlying pseudoscientific principles of TCM – they have to, their ability to tap into the TCM market depends on it!

But is this now really promoting Rhino horn as medicine? Well, the definition of promoting something is; “support or actively encourage (a cause, venture, etc.); further the progress of.” – so I would say, yes. As a scientist you are entitled to discuss historic believes, such as that most people once believed that the earth was flat. But make sure to also state that modern science has shown beyond any doubt that the earth is not flat. If it is stated that the earth is flat without saying that this is incorrect then you would be promoting that idea – and believe it or not, even in 2016, you can find a flat earth society! The same goes for Rhino horn and this is exactly what they have done here. But then again they live in a world where all TCM modalities are effective!

How to solve this problem of growing acceptance of TCM in western countries?  A simple step could be that people like Alan publicly denounce the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles and make the ‘difficult’ switch to real science! Admittedly, he will have to part with lots of money from the CM industry and his Chinese partners, and maybe not built his new TCM hospital! But for some reason I strongly doubt that this will happen. The NICM have successfully applied a very thin, but beautiful, veneer of political correctness and modernity over the surface of complementary medicine. Anyone who cares to look underneath this veneer will find a rotten ancient pseudoscientific TCM world – in this case the promotion and the use of endangered animals.

After reading chapter two of this thesis one cannot believe that this is from an Australian University and paid for by the Australian taxpayer! The main question though: Can I directly link this thesis with the increase in rhino poaching? This will be very difficult, if not impossible to do. But that is not the problem. Promoting the pseudoscientific principles of TCM in Australia will inevitably enlarge the export market for TCM, and hence, will lead to an increased need for raw materials, including Rhino horn. That Rhino horn has been a banned substance since the 1980’s clearly does not seem to have any impact looking at the poaching statistics.

The fact that the NICM has been linked with rhino horn ‘importers’ in Australia, should clarify the NICMs true view on rhino horn and its magical medicinal properties. In 2006 Yu Long Yu (Sydney, Australia) was sentenced after a large amount of endangered animal material, including Rhino horn, tiger etc, was found in his possession. Because Mr Yu was (is) a business partner of Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM), Alan was in court to defend his good friend: “Character witnesses – including Alan Bensoussan, director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Western Sydney – told the court Yu was “absolutely exceptional”. “There are very few clinicians of his ilk in Australia,” Professor Bensoussan said of his friend and sometime business associate of 20 years.” “He [the barrister] said Yu had tried to pull the wool over officials’ eyes.”

One would think that Alan, as a ‘honest scientist’, would try his best to explain to Mr Yu that TCM is based on pre-scientific ideas, and as such, is dangerous not only for people but also for (endangered) animals. But I guess that would be way too much to expect from the NICM.

What can you do about this?

Well, if you are not a politician, Vice Chancellor or work for the regulators, to be honest, not much. One obvious thing that anyone can easily do, is to stop supporting complementary, alternative and integrative therapies and medicines, even if it might look like harmless interventions (a balanced diet, exercise and drinking enough water is far more beneficial than all complementary medicines combined – and it’s a lot cheaper). These people use the sales figures and the number of practitioner visits as evidence of ‘efficacy’, and they use these numbers to lobby politicians, regulators etc. and hence the problem will not only stay with us, it will get bigger.

Another important thing that anyone can do is to inform yourself, because you, or a member of your extended family or friends, will sometime during your lifetime be confronted with fake medicine or fake medical practitioners. The problem is that these people are so good that they can sell ice to an Eskimo, and hence, they can mislead anyone; your age, level of education etc. does not matter. To be well informed will be your only defence.

To inform yourself you can continue to read about my attempts to explain how science is being abused by following my blog at ( or on Twitter (@frank_kooy) or connect on LinkedIn. A simple and easy thing to do is to use the ‘like’ function, because algorithms pick up on the number of likes and that means that the article will be made available to more people.

Another source of valuable information, with an Australian focus, is the group called ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM). They are doing excellent work by providing accurate information regarding healthcare, but they are also doing much more than that. They are trying very hard to persuade Australian universities, politicians and regulators to stop their support of pseudoscientific healthcare systems. To join the 1100 scientists and concerned academics/healthcare professionals you can add your voice by becoming a friend of FSM or follow them on Twitter (@FriendsOfSciMed) or FaceBook. Their newsletters detailing all their efforts with universities, regulators and politicians also comes highly recommended. You can subscribe here. And again, use the ‘Like’ function because it actually does mean something.

And then, finally, the website of Prof. Edzard Ernst in the UK. Prof Ernst was the first professor of complementary medicine and he has many decades of experience, which he now shares via his website. This information is invaluable and deals with specific complementary medicines but also with how people around the globe are being misled by pseudoscientists. He has also written many books (info on his website) dealing with this subject – it comes highly recommended. Twitter @EdzardErnst