A Wild-Goose Chase

Star Two, Tuesday September 2, 2008

Unsafe prescription

An encounter that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

I READ with interest Dr Milton Lum’s write-up – Regulating Traditional Medicine (Fit4Life, July 13) – on traditional and complementary medicine (T/CM). After my recent experience with a T/CM centre in Kuala Lumpur, I fully agree with Dr Lum that T/CM products and services need strict regulation to ensure their efficacy and safety.

Following a diving expedition to Pulau Weh, off Bandar Aceh, Indonesia, early this year, I returned home with an infection in my right ear. There was some discharge and ringing in the affected ear. My distant vision was affected too and I felt dizzy, especially when walking out in the open.

I sought treatment from a few Western-trained medical practitioners. My family doctor was at a loss and told me to see an ENT specialist who in turn attributed my problem to my nose. The eye specialist said it was my brain, and the neurologist told me it was an old man’s disease! Though I recovered from the ear infection, the dizziness prevailed.

After my failed attempt to find a solution, I reflected on my problem. I thought it could be due to the effects of scuba-diving accumulated over the years, particularly when my right eardrum was perforated at the learning stage, and my ear was infected a couple of times after the dives.

I thought the latest diving expedition could have triggered the dizzy spells. If that was the case, then acupuncture treatment might be effective.

In April, I visited a T/CM centre in Kuala Lumpur recommended by my friend. I explained my problem to the medical practitioner (sinseh) from China.

After feeling the pulse on both wrists, he told me there was an imbalance of qi due to my ear infection.

The sinseh used tiny needles and inserted them in various positions on my forehead and face close to my ears.

The needles were left in place for half an hour. During that time, my head felt warm and I thought the acupuncture was working.

After that, I was given medication which consisted of a Chinese herbal solution and some tablets.

I was asked to come back for further treatment after I had consumed all the prescribed medication. Under this arrangement, I would see the sinseh twice a week.

After three weeks of acupuncture treatment and taking the prescribed medication, my vision did not improve.

On my seventh visit to the centre, the sinseh told me my ears were not the cause of my imbalance, but my eyes.

Acupuncture treatment was then concentrated on my eyes and different medication was prescribed. I felt less dizzy but my distant vision was still poor, especially after reading or working on my computer.

After another three weeks of seeing the sinseh, I began to lose faith in the treatment.

Every time after the sinseh felt my pulse, he would remark that my condition had improved.

When I asked him why I had to have more acupuncture and take more medication if my vision problem was only related to my eyes, he replied that I needed more acupuncture, my digestive system was weak and the prescribed medication would strengthen it.

He told me many times that my liver needed strengthening and that I had to reduce my consumption of alcohol, and spicy and fried food.

After more than a dozen visits to the centre, my condition remained largely unchanged. I decided to stop seeing the sinseh.

As the sinseh had told me that my liver was weak, I went for a blood test. I was shocked to see from the results of the test that two of the parameters of my liver function test were well over the accepted limits. They were SGOT/AST and SGPT/ALT.

From the Internet, I learnt that the high levels of AST and ALT were due to enzymes released by dying liver cells as a result of viral hepatitis or an overdose of medicine. I stopped taking the Chinese medicine immediately.

I was quite certain that my liver damage was the result of my consumption of Chinese medicine for nearly two months. I drastically reduced my consumption of alcohol. After 12 days, I went to the lab for another liver function test. When I collected the test report, I was shocked to see that my ALT level had shot up by 100%.

I was at a complete loss. Via the Internet, I located the Asian Centre For Liver Diseases in Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore. It was next to the Eye Clinic Singapura where I had my cataract operations about 20 years ago.

Appointments were made to see the eye specialist and the liver specialist in mid-June.

After the last blood test report, I decided to abstain from all alcoholic drinks, vitamins and other supplements.

Before I left for Singapore, I went to the lab again for my third liver function test. The results showed that the levels of AST and ALT had started to come down.

A day before my appointment with the liver specialist, I submitted all the medical reports I had brought along, including a note I prepared on the recent history of my medical problem.

I was asked to go to another clinic for a blood test.

When I saw the liver specialist the next day, he categorically told me that my liver problem was due to ingestion of Chinese medication; I had drug-induced liver injury (DILI).

He said that according to a clinical study carried out recently, it had been established that many traditional complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) accounted for a major proportion of offending drugs in DILI in Asia.

He handed me a copy of the study carried out in 2006/7 by him and a few others entitled Drug-Induced Liver Injury at An Asian Centre; A Prospective Study.

He said that among the 31 DILI patients in the study, Chinese traditional CAM was the most common medication type implicated. Tests showed that many contained harmful adulterants.

The specialist advised me to have a blood test fortnightly and said that my liver would be fully restored in four weeks.

I went for two more liver function tests.

As predicted, my liver recovered progressively after I stopped consuming the prescribed Chinese medicine and was fully restored in four weeks, after which I resumed my normal activities, including visits to the pubs with friends.

A day before my appointment with the liver specialist, I went to the Eye Clinic Singapura to consult Prof Lim who had performed cataract operations on my eyes 20 years earlier.

After a thorough examination of my eyes, the professor had good and bad news for me.

The good news was that my lens implants were in perfect condition and would last even till I reached 100 years old! The bad news was that I had astigmatism and I had to get used to wearing glasses.

That’s it! I had gone on a wild-goose chase for nearly four months for just a pair of glasses.

It is hoped that the health authorities in Malaysia will enforce stricter regulations on the products and practices of T/CM to avoid any unwarranted disaster for the uninitiated.

A.S. Toh

Petaling Jaya.


nakedeyeview.com.my 2008