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[BEIJING] China has authorised its first standard treatment regime combining traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and modern medicines for patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed 774 people worldwide and infected more than 8,000 before abating in July 2003.

Hong Jing, deputy director of the department of science and education within the Beijing-based State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (SATCM), says her agency is looking to spread use of the regime nationwide as a standard clinical response to SARS.

"The new [system] has proven highly effective in curing hundreds of SARS patients in the past year, " Hong told SciDev.Net.

Last week, a joint committee of the Ministry of Health, SATCM, and the State Food and Drug Administration officially approved the new SARS regime, which combines certain TCM prescriptions, antibiotics, hormones and recombinant interferon, a synthetic version of the natural interferons produced by white blood cells that help the body resist viral infection.

According to Liu Yanshi, chief scientist of the programme and vice president of the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the joint regime has major advantages over those that use solely modern medicine. These include limiting inflammation of the lungs and rapid breathing, and reducing the risk of low blood oxygen levels and impotence. The combined approach also limits the side effects of conventional treatments, especially those with potential to harm patients' liver and kidneys, he says.

Hormone therapy was widely used last year to treat SARS in China. But after they recovered from the disease, many patients suffered from serious and potentially paralysing bone-related problems, especially in the hips. According to local newspaper reports, between one-third and a half of medical staff who fell ill and recovered from SARS suffered from corticosteroid-related avascular necrosis – a bone disease associated with steroid medication – in their hips.

The value of TCM in preventing disease and strengthening patients' immunity is fully revealed through the plan, Liu says. Scientists analysed data collected at 11 hospitals in Beijing between April and June 2003. A total of 524 patients were observed, including 304 who were treated with the joint clinical regime. The research shows that the regime is more effective when adopted at early stages of disease development, Liu says.

Hong says that officials of the World Health Organisation have also reviewed the clinical plan and highly praised the effect of TCM against SARS.

In another development, Chinese scientists recently began the world's first human trials of a SARS vaccine with tests on four volunteers at a Beijing hospital (see China starts testing SARS vaccine on humans).