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[BEIJING] Chinese authorities have for the first time approved the use of a traditional medicine to help treat patients with HIV/AIDS.

The medicine, known as Tangcaopian (which means 'traditional herbal pill'), was licensed by the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) earlier this month.

According to the SDFA, the medicine has increased levels of CD4 immune cells in people with HIV in clinical trials, suggesting that it helps strengthen their immune response to the virus. Tangcaopian also has positive effects on symptoms of HIV infection such as muscle weakness, coughing, fever and skin rash.

The SFDA has refused to reveal which institute or company is producing the medicine.

The approval of Tangcaopian has been welcomed by Lin Ruichao, director of the traditional medicine department of the Beijing-based National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products — the SFDA's main body for testing new drugs.

Traditional medicines have great potential in treating patients with HIV/AIDS, he says, by helping to boost their immune systems and reducing some of the disease's painful symptoms.

Shi Dan, director of the research centre of Chengdu-based Enwei Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, says that although tests have shown that traditional medicines are not as effective as their chemical counterparts in tackling HIV, they can be used in combination with standard therapies. The company is in the third phase of a clinical trial for a traditional medicine against AIDS.

China's Ministry of Health estimates that 840,000 people had HIV/AIDS in 2003. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has warned that the number of people infected could reach 10 million by 2010.

Treating such a large number of people is expensive, and some hope that traditional medicines could help reduce this cost. Shi estimates that combining traditional medicines and chemical drugs could cost as little as US$725 per patient per year. This compares to the current cost of US$2,400 per year with standard generic AIDS drugs.

However, with average per capita income standing at only US$1,000 in urban areas and US$320 in the countryside, even traditional medicines combined with standard drug therapies would still be too expensive for most of China's population.

So far, more than 20 traditional-medicine producers are developing treatments for AIDS patients, and at least five of these have received approval from SFDA to carry out clinical trials of their products, according to Shi.