In the absence of COVID-19 vaccine, Chinese Americans turn to ancient Chinese remedies for treatment

July 4, 2020 Center for Cooperative Media

By April Xu, Sing Tao Daily

NEW JERSEY When the coronavirus started to unfold in New Jersey in early March, Yubi Chen, a licensed acupuncturist in Plainsboro, NJ, got a few calls from his Chinese American clients, asking about the Chinese herbal medicine being used to treat COVID-19 in China. 

By mid April, as thousands of people in the state had been sickened and died, desperation seemed to rise and the number of calls that Chen received had also increased.

While there is no known cure or vaccine for the coronavirus, Chinese American families here and other parts of the country are looking at ways to supplement the treatment with remedies that have been around for more than 3,500 years. 

Western health experts still question the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine, whether dried roots of various plants and jasmine leaves or bull horn and pearl, but these herbal remedies have strong supporters from the Chinese American community.

“In Chinese people’s mind, Chinese medicine is one of the legacies of their ancestors,” said Chen. “When they feel sick, the first thing they think about is to take this medicine. It’s more like a cultural habit.”

In the United States, according to Dr. Yongming Li, former president of the American Traditional Chinese Medicine Society (ATCMS), Chinese medicine is defined legally only as food supplements— not medicine. Therefore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that traditional Chinese medicine products should not be branded for treating any diseases. 

Although some states may allow licensed acupuncturists to administer these Chinese remedies, Li reiterated, it is against the federal law to prescribe them as medicine. 

“I don’t think the status of traditional Chinese medicine in the United States will change in the near term,” he said.

Still, the demand for Chinese medicine has dramatically gone up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In New Jersey alone, Chinese acupuncturists have been compelled to give these remedies to their patients to fight the coronavirus. 

In late April, a 76-year-old Chinese woman contracted the coronavirus. She had a high fever and experienced shortness of breath. Because she did not want to be identified and she refused to get admitted to the hospital, she reached out to one of the Chinese licensed acupuncturists in New Jersey. 

Three days after the woman took some Chinese herbs, Chen said, her flu-like symptoms dramatically improved.

Karen Zhang, of Princeton, NJ, also had a high fever; her temperature was nearly 103 degrees. On April 9, when she went to a private doctor to get tested, the result came up positive for COVID-19.

Zhang, 69, took some ibuprofen and acetaminophen to relieve her symptoms, but her fever did not subside. She called Su Hong, a licensed acupuncturist and current president of ATCMS, for help. 

“I tried other methods to relieve my symptoms, but nothing seemed to work. That was the time I decided to try Chinese medicine,” Zhang said. 

On April 12, after taking Chinese medicine for four days, her body temperature started to drop. Then, eight days later, she fully recovered.

“I don’t want to say that Chinese medicine is a ‘miracle medicine’ for the coronavirus, but it truly worked for me,” Zhang added.

Su said that since late January, when the novel coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan, China, she closely followed the news. 

Based on what happened in the past with the SARS pandemic, she knew Chinese medicine would be needed soon. 

“I felt that COVID-19 would surge in the United States, sooner or later,” Su said. “So, I decided to get more training from an experienced Chinese acupuncturist based in China to learn more about Chinese medicine.”

China’s policy on herbal medicine

Most Chinese Americans have been encouraged to try Chinese medicine after hearing about its positive impact on patients in China. The Chinese government supports the use of herbal medicine for treating the coronavirus.

In mainland China, according to a report in China Daily, about 90 percent of COVID-19 patients have taken Chinese medicine for treatment. Lung Cleansing and Detoxifying Decoction (LCDD) is among the Chinese medicine formulas mentioned in the (Chinese government) official COVID-19 Diagnosis and Treatment Guideline or known as “Trial Version 7.” 

The LCDD formula has 21 herbal components and is mainly effective in improving symptoms of fever, cough and fatigue, as well as severe lung conditions.

In 10 Chinese provinces, according to Tong Xiaolin, chief researcher of the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, about 1,261 COVID-19 patients took the decoction treatment. Of those patients, 1,102 have fully recovered. 

And for the 40 patients who were in severe condition, at least 28 of them were discharged from the hospital, after taking the Chinese medicine formula.

Restrictive New Jersey state laws

On March 4, when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver announced the state’s first case of COVID-19, Su realized that it was time to apply her training on Chinese medicine to help those who are in need.

“Many patients here have been desperateespecially during the time when testing was not even available,” Su said. “They don’t just want to stay at home and die, so many of them have been pleading for Chinese medicine.” 

But the state law has been preventing Su and other licensed acupuncturists in New Jersey from prescribing Chinese medicine to their patients. 

She then formed a team, along with 20 acupuncturists, to hold regular meetings online, develop the LCDD Chinese medicine formula, and give it to their patients as dietary food supplements.

“We only give the formula to patients who don’t have severe symptoms and don’t have underlying conditions. But we ask our patients to sign a waiver. We want to help them, but we don’t want to cause any trouble. We never claim that this is a medicine for treating COVID-19,” Su added.

Since May, the team has given the formula to more than 20 COVID-19 Chinese American patients and most of them have recovered. 

“We are really hoping that our experience with Chinese medicine in China can be applied in New Jersey and other parts of the United States. We believe that it could reduce the mortality rate related to the coronavirus,” Li said.

Although Li is aware that it may take time and education to promote Chinese medicine to mainstream America, he is hopeful. 

In 1970, when acupuncture was first introduced in the United States, he said some acupuncturists were arrested for unlicensed medical practice because there was no legal protection. However, due to a strong public demand for acupuncture, and with the help from a number of elected officials, Nevada became the first state that fully legalized acupuncture

To date, there are 47 U.S. states that have acupuncture regulations.

“If there is solid evidence or research proving that Chinese medicine can save lives, significantly reduce mortality, or greatly expedite the recovery of COVID-19 patients, I believe there will be more pressure from Americans and their elected officials to break the institutional barriers for Chinese medicine,” Li said. “Ultimately, I know that the Western world will adopt Chinese medicine.”

This story was produced as part of the Freelance Fund initiative organized by the Center for Cooperative Media. The original story was written in Chinese for Sing Tao Daily. The English version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publication(s), for length and clarity.

Featured image caption: Hong Su and 20 other acupuncturists in New Jersey formed a team to develop a traditional Chinese medicine formula as food supplements for COVID-19 patients. PHOTO by Hong Su.

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