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Belgium orders cancer tests after herbal remedy alert

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 01 July 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:12
  1. Rory Watson
  1. Brussels

    Medical authorities in Belgium expect to know later this summer how many patients who took a Chinese herbal remedy in the early 1990s as part of a weight loss programme have since developed cancer.

    Doctors are currently analysing the results of tests on 730 people who contacted a special call centre about the potentially carcinogenic effects of the aristolochia plant. Belgium's health minister, Magda Alvoet, issued a public warning about the plant in March.

    The minister estimated that up to 10 000 people might have been exposed to the toxic substance, which researchers at the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels have discovered can cause cancer if taken over a long period.

    The warning came after the researchers screened 40 out of 100 patients who had taken the herbs and developed chronic renal disease as a result. They found that at least 18 had a cancer of the urinary tract.

    The government's call prompted 1502 replies, of which 87% were from women. But just over half these were not considered to be at risk as they had taken other herbs or had taken aristolochia over an extremely brief period.

    The first indications of the harmful health effects of the Chinese plant came in 1992 when the Erasmus Hospital identified several cases of chronic renal failure among young women who had followed the same slimming treatment. The product, which was manufactured by a Belgian company, was taken off the market in 1994, and the firm has since closed down.

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