Zhu Amei, a 47-year-old HIV-infected farmer from Zaozhu Village of central China's Henan Province, says she feels much better after taking traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) for three months.
She says herbal medicines provided by local doctors and health authorities have gradually restored her appetite and weight, and she has been able to do some work again.
Zhu stopped taking her cocktail therapy in August and opted for TCM treatment, because she said the cocktail treatment, using a combination of different drugs and antibiotics and provided free by the central government since last August, caused nausea and headaches.
Many farmers like Zhu have given up the cocktail therapy due to a lack of clinical guidance for infected farmers and strong side effects from the drugs.
In Henan alone, nearly 10,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers have received the treatment, but about 20 percent of them have given it up, said Xia Zhuchang, deputy director-general of the Henan health bureau.
This prompted the medical community to seek new treatments from TCM, which has treated diseases for hundreds of years and has a complete theoretical system and abundant clinical experience.
A very important point about TCM is that it can fight viruses and diseases through enhancing the human immune system, which is the very target of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
A pilot campaign introducing TCM to treat people with HIV/AIDS was launched in April in five provinces, including Henan and Yunnan.
More than 9 million yuan (US$1.08 million) has been invested by the central government, with the majority of this, 5.3 million yuan (US$670,000) going to Henan, where more than 200,000 people sold blood in the early 1990s, with 25,000 of them confirmed as HIV carriers and AIDS patients.
In Henan, the pilot project was carried out in nine counties, including Shangcai, in August.
A total of 1,792 patients from 96 villages began to receive TCM treatment.
Zhu's village, with 1,200 residents and one hour's ride from Zhengzhou, has about 140 HIV carriers or AIDS patients.
Patients in pilot regions are placed into 32 groups, and every group has three doctors respectively from county-level, township and village hospitals.
And every two groups have another two doctors from provincial and municipal hospitals, who will regularly visit them, once every one or two weeks.
Every one has his or her own medical record. They go to the village clinic where doctors conduct a very careful diagnosis with TCM methods, such as feeling the pulse and observing symptoms face-to-face and learning about their conditions.
Then doctors give a prescription and medicines can be directly received from the clinic's dispensary.
The main medicine taken by all these patients in the province is "Yi'aikang," a TCM capsule invented by local medical experts.
Yi'aikang is one of the TCM prescriptions designated by the State Administration of TCM as a pilot medicine for the clinic treatment of HIV/AIDS patients in the five pilot provinces.
Based on the different symptoms, doctors would also give special prescriptions of other herbal medicines.
Realizing that it is inconvenient to boil herbal medicines at home, a doctor would take these prescriptions to a county-level TCM hospital and have the medicines prepared there.
The doctors would then take the herbal soup back on the next day and the local people could get it at the clinic.
All medicines and services are provided free in the pilot villages.
One of the main characteristics of the TCM treatment is that it can give specific prescriptions to the people based on their personal health conditions through a direct diagnosis, said Li Fazhi, a senior TCM expert of the No 1 Hospital affiliated to Henan TCM University and one of the inventors of Yi'aikang.
Li has diagnosed and given prescriptions to more than 300 AIDS patients over the past three months, and he said that TCM can obviously alleviate AIDS patients' symptoms, including lethargy, diarrhea, nausea, fever, coughing and skin diseases.
Patients welcome TCM
The locals queuing up for Li's diagnosis at the clinic in Zaozhu Village seem to agree.
"When I took anti-virus medicines, I could not even distinguish the smell of the different dishes and had no appetite. And my weight fell to 55 kilograms last year," said Zhu Laobo, a 53-year-old man.
However, after taking the herbal medicines for three months, he said that he now likes to eat food again and his weight increases to 71 kilograms.
The latest check shows that the amount of the HIV virus in his body has decreased in the past three months and the number of red and white blood cells, which are essential for immunity, has increased.
Zhu and other villagers waited quietly at the yard, chatting with reporters and other villagers at ease, and when they talked about their blood-selling history, they would remind each other of specific details of some trips to the blood-selling station.
Although there are no specific scientific tests or final results of investigations to exactly tell what happened, primary clinical treatment for hundreds of HIV carriers and AIDS patients has proved to be effective in improving their symptoms and reducing their pain, Li Fazhi said.
"The outside world maybe has a lot of reasons to say that they do not believe what happened here, but it did," said Xia Zuchang.
"My family has been preparing a bier for me since last year, but now, you see, I am here and I can even do construction work to make money," said Zhu Dapao.
Before TCM was introduced, the clinic was crowded with patients who asked for transfusions of antibiotics to treat various infections caused by the failure of immunity, said Zhu Zhongguo, a 36-year-old patient.
Now, no patients wait at the clinic for a transfusion.
Zhu Zhongguo said that he is still taking the anti-viral medicines because he believed that the combination of Western and Chinese medicines would be a stronger weapon in fighting the disease.
In the pipeline
"Until now, we still cannot say that TCM can win the war against HIV/AIDS, and further research should be done," said Xia.
However, Xia said that traditional Chinese medicine has given some happiness and hope to the local patients and experts.
Xia said experts will try to draw conclusions from the first stage of the pilot work ending early next year.
And he believed that the central health authority will also collect various experiences from this TCM treatments soon and make some proposals.
The scheme will then be introduced to many other parts of the country with an estimated 840,000 HIV carriers now.
Yi'aikang was invented in 2001 by Xiao Zuchang, Li Fazhi and several other experts when the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the province was still largely unknown in the outside world.
Li's hospital produced the first batch of medicine for 50,000 yuan (US$6,200), the total finances at their disposal.
Research into and production of anti-AIDS drugs using TCM has been carried out in other parts of the country.
Beijing's Guang'anmen Hospital, which is affiliated to the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, announced last month that its Ailing-1 granule (AI-1) made from herbal medicines may help maintain or even improve the immune systems of HIV-infected patients.
After six months of tests on volunteers, researchers found that the AI-1 granule can counter clinical symptoms like coughing, weight loss and pain, greatly improving the patients' quality of life, according to a recent international conference on traditional Chinese medicines in Beijing.
On October 31, another herbal medicine called Ke'aite was reported to have passed the first stage of clinical trials and was approved by the State Food and Drug Administration to launch the second stage of clinical trials.
On the same day, an anti-AIDS TCM prescription was reported to be ranked as a major scientific innovation by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The prescription, developed by the Chinese Academy of TCM (CATCM), is named CATCM-II.
In April, the first licence for TCM to help treat HIV/AIDS patients was granted to a medicine, the Tang Herbal Tablet.
One month before its approval, SH - another TCM-based herbal medicine invented by Chinese researchers in Kunming - was approved as a new drug by Thailand's drug authorities.
Xiao said local experts will continue to develop TCM medicines and treatment and he believed that some comparatively mature prescriptions and medicines will soon become available.
(China Daily December 1, 2004)