BEIJING — With doctors urging amputation to stop the gangrene spreading upwards from his toes, Liu Guorong was skeptical when a friend said bee venom might save his foot.
“I was doubting this place,” the 58-year-old diabetes sufferer said in a raspy voice during a visit to the Xizhihe Traditional Medicine Hospital on the outskirts of Beijing.
“When I got here, I had no idea what I was doing and what the bee sting treatment was all about.”
As Liu found out, it was painful.
Bees were placed on his foot and provoked to sting him in a bid to rejuvenate the blackened, rotting flesh by flooding it with a rush of protein-rich blood.
A folk remedy for treating arthritis, back pain and rheumatism for 3,000 years in China, practitioners say that such pinpointed stings can repair damaged cells, stave off bacteria and ease inflammation.
Doctors at Xizhihe hospital believe they can even cure liver ailments, diabetes and cancers.
They admit, however, that they do not really know how it works.
“Our knowledge has increased over the years,” said Xu Xiaowang, Xizhihe hospital director.
“But there are still large areas that are unknown to us all... There are too many unanswered questions,” Xu said.
Western-trained doctors dismiss the treatment as unscientific and dangerous.
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
“It’s alternative medicine and has no basis in western medical science... I would doubt its efficacy,” Professor Christopher Lam, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University in Hong Kong said.
“People allergic to bee stings can develop hypersensitivity reactions like a sudden drop in blood pressure, swelling of the airways, cold sweats... it may be life threatening,” Lam said.
Hazy science notwithstanding, at 20 yuan (about $2.50) a sting, the treatment offers a cheap alternative to mainstream medicine.
“Doctors at other hospitals were telling me that they needed to cut my foot off,” Liu said. “I’d spent loads of money.”
Liu has been to Xizhihe several times to get stung and is now on a course of orally-taken bee venom medication. He now expects to keep his foot.
“The flesh is growing back ... I’m feeling better,” Liu said.
Bee venom is just one of an exhaustive catalogue of ancient folk remedies involving bugs, herbs, animal parts and massage that make up traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Incorporating elements of mysticism and based on a philosophy developed several thousand years ago, TCM is regarded as an alternative medicine in the West, but in China it remains a central plank of modern health care.
About 3,000 private clinics provided TCM treatments to more than 230 million people in 2005. Health officials say it generated 95 billion yuan that year -- more than a quarter of the medical industry’s total income — and revenues have grown an average 20 percent a year over the past decade.
The government, sensing an export-driven cash cow, ploughed 740 million yuan into research and development last year in a bid to bolster TCM’s scientific credistinbility and standing in Western markets where alternative remedies are increasingly welcomed.
And yet, domestically, TCM is in free-fall.
Once the only player in the market, economic reforms have ushered in foreign drugs and foreign-trained doctors, forcing a showdown between modern Western practices and ancient Eastern pragmatism.
Between 2000-2004, TCM’s share of prescription drug income declined by nearly a quarter, state media reported.
Increasingly spurned by China’s time-poor youth, TCM is also under siege from academics who deem it unscientific and of dubious medical benefit.
Zhang Gongyao, a scientist at Central South University in Changsha, capital of China’s central Hunan province, created a media storm in October after he posted an essay on his personal blog urging the government to strike TCM from the official medical registry.
Patients swarming for cheaper care
Western medicine, however, let alone basic health care, is a luxury many of the country’s 1.3 billion people cannot afford.
Fees at state-run hospitals, robbed of funding after deregulation in the 1990s, have soared in recent years, while individual spending on health care nearly doubled from 1978 to 2002, according to health ministry statistics.
Beijing has pledged to spend more on basic health services, but expensive public health care ensures a steady stream of customers to small, private clinics like Xizhihe — where relief may be as cheap as a few beestings.
Lu Jiumei, a middle-aged woman with rheumatism, made the three-hour journey to Xizhihe from her home-town in Hebei province to get bee venom therapy.
“I don’t think this could be harmful to the body in terms of side effects. I have been treated a few times now,” she said.
She grimaced as an angry bee deposited its salutary sting into her leg. But a few moments later, a smile broke out on her face.
“My pain is relieved a lot and it’s going away,” she said, patting a freshly swollen mound on her thigh.
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.