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Cluster of poisoning cases from mislabelled Chinese herb investigated

     The Department of Health (DH) today (March 16) continued its investigation into the cause of the cluster of poisoning cases reported by the Hospital Authority on March 12. The cases involved four patients who had taken a Chinese herb labelled "Flos Campsis", from Fu Hong Medicine Co (Fu Hong), a licensed retailer of Chinese herbal medicines in Fu Tung Shopping Centre, Tung Chung, Lantau Island.

     A spokesman said that Fu Hong's records showed that the batch of Flos Campsis in question was purchased from Hang Wo Drug Co (Hang Wo), a licensed Chinese herbal medicines wholesaler, on February 24, 2011.  However, the herb was referred to as "Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae" on the receipt, while DH's examination of the stock seized from Fu Hong revealed that it was actually a third herb, the toxic "Flos Daturae Metelis".

     Laboratory analysis of the herb confirmed the presence of tropane alkaloids expected in Flos Daturae Metelis. These had caused the anticholinergic symptoms in the four poisoning cases.

     "Flos Campsis and Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae are non-toxic Chinese herbs, whereas Flos Daturae Metelis is a potent poison, classified as a Schedule 1 herb under the Chinese Medicine Ordinance," the spokesman said.

     DH's tracing at Hang Wo failed to locate any further stock of Flos Campsis, Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae or Flos Daturae Metelis.  The wholesaler did admit to pharmaceutical inspectors that it had mistakenly considered Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae to be identical with Flos Campsis all along. So DH visited all other traders which had purchased Flos Campsis or Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae from Hang Wo since August 2010, but found no other incident of herb mix-up.

     As both Fu Hong and Hang Wo had failed to differentiate Flos Paulowniae Tomentosae from Flos Campsis, the spokesman said that they might have contravened the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap 132, Laws of Hong Kong). The maximum penalty is a fine of $50,000 and six months' imprisonment. DH will consult the Department of Justice on possible legal action.

     Meanwhile, as the Chinese medicine practitioner in Fu Hong had failed to keep proper records of his patients, DH is unable to trace the other seven patients who had bought "Flos Campsis" from the Chinese medicine practitioner after February 24.

     "Suffice to say, so far, DH has not received reports of other patients who felt or are feeling unwell after taking Fu Hong's 'Flos Campsis' in the intervening period.  This matter does raise concerns about the practitioner's standard of practice and will be brought to the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong's attention for the necessary disciplinary hearing," the spokesman said.

     Additionally, results of tests on the patients' clinical specimens revealed aconitum alkaloids in a four-year-old boy.  The investigation into Fu Hong revealed that a herbal drink taken by the child was prepared by Fu Hong, and just before his bowl of herbal drink was made, Fu Hong had prepared herbs containing aconitine for another client.  Cross-contamination could not be ruled out. The investigation continues.

     "Members of the public who have purchased 'Flos Campsis' from Fu Hong after February 24 must stop using the herb and surrender it to DH at 16/F, Two Landmark East, Kwun Tong, Kowloon, for disposal.  They should seek advice from their attending Chinese medicine practitioners if they feel unwell or whenever in doubt," the spokesman added.

Ends/Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Issued at HKT 13:32


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