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Being Alive

Chinese Medicine and HIV Disease


Being Alive 1993 Jan 5: 23

The use of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medications has become one of the most commonly used alternative therapies for AIDS. Its use has become so widely accepted, that two Chinese Medicine Clinics in San Francisco have been awarded contracts through the SF Health Department's AIDS Office to provide Chinese Medical treatment to people with HIV. The contracts are funded by Ryan White CARE Act allocations.

Most people with HIV who use acupuncture and Chinese herbs do so in conjunction with western medicine. There are, however, some who use it as their principal form of medical treatment. It is strongly suggested that it be used under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. The practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is considered a primary care medical modality in California, and it practitioners physicians. Certain components of its practice are reimbursable by private insurance companies. Acupuncture is covered by Medi-Cal at a rate of two treatments per month. Practitioners of Chinese Medicine use the title Licensed Acupuncturists, or L.Ac., and are licensed by the State Board of Medical Quality Assurance. The training required to qualify to sit for the licensing examination is quite rigorous. Candidates are required to have completed three years of post-graduate training in Chinese Medicine, which includes a good deal of western based training in anatomy, physiology and biology.

According to Dr. Hong-yen Hsu, in Natural Healing with Chinese Herbs, the systematic practice of Chinese Medicine dates back over two thousand years, making it the oldest medical system in the world. The first known medical book on the subject is The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, which was written during the Han dynasty around 200 A.D. The first systematic compendium of collected knowledge, the Treatise on Febrile Diseases, appeared at approximately the same time. The author was Chang Chung-ching, who is considered historically to be among China's greatest physicians, and is revered in China as Hippocrates is in the West. From its very origin, Chinese Medicine combined empirical experience with a clear philosophical theory.

Many people erroneously view Chinese herbal medicine as an equivalent of taking a western drug for the alleviation of symptoms. But the differences between the two schools of thought are profound. Where western medicine is derived solely from scientific method as a means of treating disease, Chinese medicine is intertwined with a philosophy of life, and is based on a holistic view of supporting the mind-body's innate ability to maintain health and to heal itself should illness occur. This approach is the result of many thousands of years of accumulated experience.

Chinese philosophy views the universe as a living organism and sees the human body as a microcosm of that greater organism. Western medicine tends to view the human body as a machine and has evolved its practice based on this assumption. Rather than dealing with mechanistic components of the human organism, as western science advocates, the TCM approach is one of aligning the functions of the organs and systems as a whole, promoting the dynamic balance of energy polarities which maintains health and well-being.

Central to the philosophy of Chinese Medicine is the concept of ch'i, or qi, which can loosely be defined as the vital energy of the universe, of which all things are made. Ch'i patterns fluctuate between the polarities of what are called yin and yang, the active and passive sides of the life force. Illnesses can crudely be viewed as either excesses or deficiencies in either the yin or yang components of ch'i. Ch'i is believed to vitalize the body by its movements along the pathways which are known as meridians. The "meridian theory" of Chinese Medicine is not accepted in western medicine, because they have never been objectively identified anatomically. The circumstantial evidence of their existence, however, is undeniable to Chinese doctors, since points along the meridians have been used successfully as the sites for acupuncture needling for thousands of years. The use of herbs is also thought to facilitate the normal movement of ch'i along the meridians. The Japanese refer to illness as "bioki" which translates as "injured ch'i." Dr. Gonzon Goto, a leading Japanese authority on Chinese Medicine, contends that the obstruction of ch'i along the meridians is the cause of all disease.

Chinese medicine was first popularized as a treatment for AIDS in San Francisco by Misha Cohen, a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, in 1984. A good deal of western type research on certain aspects of Chinese Medicine have since been conducted. Many of the herbs have been found to inhibit HIV and other viruses in laboratory experiments. Other herbs have been shown to act as biological response modifiers, enhancing certain immune responses. In addition, a small, strictly controlled study using acupuncture to treat HIV infected individuals was conducted at Lincoln Hospital in Bronx, NY, a few years back. It was reported that individuals receiving correctly applied acupuncture needling had notable increases in their CD4 counts after only a brief course of therapy. This pilot study certainly demonstrated the need for further research.

A most attractive feature of Chinese Medicine is the lack of toxicity when utilized by trained professionals. It is generally thought to be ill-advised for an individual to use Chinese herbal formulations without the supervision of a licensed practitioner of TCM. Acupuncture is reimbursable by Medi-CAL and some private insurance. The herbs which are not covered can be obtained in various forms and are relatively inexpensive.

Some human efficacy studies of Chinese medicine for HIV disease are currently underway or enrolling participants under the supervision of the FDA. Chinese herbs may be a rich source of therapeutic agents for AIDS and its related illnesses.

It is essential that people with HIV have all the information they need to select the treatment options most suited to their own needs and dispositions. Chinese Medicine is a promising option which is safe, appears to be somewhat effective, and is affordable to most.

(This artical originally appeared in the San Francisco Sentinel, December 3, 1992. For information on HIV-related Chinese Medicine available in the LA area, a good person to start with is Stephan Korsia, Experimental Treatment Coordinator at APLA, 213.962.1600 extension 270.)


Information in this article was accurate in January 5, 1993. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.