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Adulteration in traditional medicine products

Traditional medicine as defined under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulations 1984 refers to any product used in the practice of indigenous medicine in which the drug consist solely of one or more naturally occurring substances of a plant, animal or mineral, of parts thereof, in the un-extracted or crude extract form, and a homeopathic medicine.

Consumers are always looking for alternative medicine with traditional medicine as one of the healing choices for diseases. Unfortunately, many of us overlook the fact that carry traditional medicines cannot be mixed with any scheduled poison (controlled medicine) or other harmful substances.

In order to reap lucrative profits, some unscrupulous manufacturers and sellers put poison in traditional medicine to give immediate effect to consumers.

Popular Adulterants

Laboratory tests have found types of poison that are most frequently added to traditional medicines as illustrated below:

Types of poison
sildenafil, thiodimethylsildenafil, tadalafil Sex Stimulants
sibutramine, phentermine Slimming agents
dexamethasone Anti-inflammatory
hydroquinone Anti-pigmentation
tretinoin Acne products

Be a Smart Consumer

Consumers should read information and claims especially the extravagance claims stated on the label of traditional medicine products before making any purchase Consumers need to be smart and sensitive and should be suspicious if a product is capable of providing the desired effect in a short time. A product may have a positive effect initially but then consumers unknowingly exposed themselves to serious health risks.

Rationale on Prohibition of mixing Poisons into the Traditional Medicines

Certain poisons are harmful to society and are prohibited by the Ministry of Health Malaysia. They can only be used under strict medical supervision. Adulterants in traditional medicines can lead to various side effects as follows:

Types of poison
Side effects
sildenafil, thiodimethylsildenafil, tadalafil Heart failure, seizures, fainting
sibutramine Heart attack, bleeding intestines, mania or psychotic
dexamethasone Cushing’s syndrome which is characterised by a round face or moon face, high blood pressure, hallucinations, diabetes mellitus, central obesity
hydroquinone Skin inflammation, burning sensations, hypersensitivity to light
tretinoin Skin peeling and inflammation, hypersensitivity to sunlight

(Drug Information Handbook 12th Edition)

Keep in mind that almost all the adulterated traditional medicines products, are not registered with the Drug Control Authority. Hence, they do not go through such an important quality and safety inspections especially for heavy metal screening tests.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), long-term exposure to heavy metals like mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium can cause damage to lungs, brain and kidney. These metal can also cause miscarriage or birth defects in pregnant women.

Examples of Aldulterated Traditional Medicine Products

Products adulterated with sildenafil

Products adulterated with sibutramine

Products adulterated with dexamethasone

Products adulterated with hydroquinone

Products adulterated with tretinoin

Seizure of Products

Pharmacy Enforcement Officers actively monitor the sales of traditional medicine products suspected of being adulterated with poison from time to time. Intelligent tests involving laboratory analysis are done for a more accurate and detailed investigation before any seizure operation is carried out. Since 2010 until 2013, a total of 6,553 products worth of RM18,188,290.00 have been seized in the entire state.

The seller shall be liable as a violation of Rule 7 (1) (a) of the Rules of the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulations 1984 and is of opinion that an offense is committed under Regulation 30 (1) of the same Regulation. The penalty for such an offence upon conviction is liable to a fine not exceeding RM25,000.00 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or both. For the second offense, the offender can be sentenced to, not more than RM50,000.00 or to imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or both.

Overall, consumers are advised to stop using traditional medicines that are suspected to be adulterated with poisons. Consultation with doctors is essential to get the right treatment for a better health. Manufacturers and sellers have to be responsible towards products marketed and not obsessed to gain profits only which may jeopardize consumers’ health.

Tip and Guides in Using Traditional Medicine

  1. Ensure that traditional medicines to be purchased are registered. The registration number must have the letter T at the end of the eight digits. For example: MAL12345678T. The registration number can be checked via http://npra.moh.gov.my/ at the ‘QUEST Products Search’ by entering the registration number. If the information on the label is accurate the products are safe.
  2. Search for silver or hologram sticker on the packaging of traditional medicines. Please refer to pharmacist to verify the authenticity of the hologram using the Meditag hologram decoder.
  3. Always consult your doctor before taking any traditional medicines.
  4. Continue taking medicines supplied by the clinic or hospital. Do not stop taking these medicines unless under doctors’ directives.
  5. Inform your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any traditional medicines alongside the modern medicine to avoid interactions between drugs.
  6. Avoid traditional medicines during pregnancy and nursing period to prevent any harmful effects to the foetus and infant.
Last Reviewed : 27 October 2017
Translator : Atika Mahfuza bt. Mahbub
Accreditor : Munira bt. Muhammad