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[BEIJING] Chinese health authorities yesterday launched a nationwide programme to build up 161 traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) hospitals, each specialising in the treatment of a particular condition, such as different types of cancers, heart and vascular diseases and hepatitis.

"The aim is to standardise TCM hospitals and drugs, train more TCM practitioners, and improve the public image of TCM," says Liu Wenwu, section chief of medical affairs with China's State Administration of TCM (SATCM).

The SATCM will select hospitals for participation by the end of 2005. The hospitals will first have to pass an evaluation process. According to Liu, they will be assessed on the basis of their research capabilities, the number of patients they have treated successfully, and the prominence of their doctors and researchers.

China's Ministry of Health and the SATCM will provide financial and academic support to recommended TCM hospitals to allow them to develop treatments for the diseases in which they specialise. Liu would not disclose how much the government intends to spend on the programme.

The major problems currently facing TCM in China are difficulties in standardising treatment, and the lack of a clear understanding of how many TCM recipes work, especially those using a combination of medicines, says Wu Yichi, vice-president of Yiling TCM Pharmaceuticals company in Hebei province.

Despite a history that extends back more than 3,000 years, TCM is being eclipsed by modern medicine. Some now reject TCM as unscientific, and promoted only by charlatans. But others argue that it has a proven track record in treating many chronic diseases, and improves the quality of life of patients.

The recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed 774 people worldwide and infected more than 8,000 before abating in July 2003, opened doors for traditional medicine. Lacking effective modern treatments, many turned to TCM in the hope that it would provide them with some protection.

This — and mounting accusations of stolen intellectual property rights to pharmaceuticals products — is leading Chinese drug companies to focus their research on TCM, says Wu.

Accompanying the SATCM move is a demand from China's State Food and Drug Administration to standardise TCM prescriptions. This will be done for more than 1,400 registered traditional medicines over the next three years.