This supposed "wonder drug" is rolled out anytime authorities fear a health crisis can spark a national panic. But are placebos a good approach to government policy?
BEIJING - Since the confirmation of the first case of human H7N9 infection in China, dozens of cases have appeared, and 13 people have already died from this new strain of bird flu. Local health authorities all around in the country are on high alert to prevent the infection from spreading.
At the same time, provincial health authorities are also busy trying to quell any public panic by recommending ways to prevent people from catching the infection. One of the main antidotes that they suggest is for people to make herbal tea with a natural remedy called ban lan gen, derived from the root of a plant called woad, or Isatis tinctoria.
Ban lan gen was also the drug-of-choice for preventing the 2003 SARS epidemic as well as the 2005 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. This time, not only is everybody taking ban lan gen, it is also being fed to chickens and other birds.
We can understand the original intention of provincial health authorities in recommending this prevention measure. To limit the panic caused by a new avian flu outbreak, relevant government departments have to act and inform the public in the most efficient way possible. However, the solution they advocate has garnered public ridicule and contempt – which has defeated its original purpose.
One thing is certain, it’s that anyone with a bit of common sense should know that ban lan gen is not a magic cure-all – there is no such thing. So why are officials so obsessed with ban lan gen, promoting it as a magic pill for more than a decade?
To put it plainly it's because the authorities believe that the public needs a placebo. Even if it has no real effect, it can at least bring psychological comfort – better to have it than to go without.
It is true that ban lan gen has antiviral properties, but its effect on the H7N9 virus has yet to be clinically proved. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the fact that using this drug can be helpful to ward off a pandemic. Not to mention that there have been a lot of adverse reactions reported – including digestive tract and liver damage.
Ban lan gen is not the only unproven drug recommended by the health authorities. This governmental department, which is supposed to rely on science, shouldn’t be so un-scientific in its recommendations. This is very ironic coming from a government that has been trying to raise scientific awareness for years, to promote the scientific literacy of its population.
Do people need placebos? Of course they do. But the most effective way to quell a public panic is a transparent information system. A system that tells the public what the real situation is, how the government is reacting and what the public should be doing.
Alas, far too often, the Chinese government is not transparent in the way it informs the public, whether in responding to a pandemic or other incidents. Sometimes authorities are so casual that their reaction leads to an even bigger panic and misunderstanding. Case in point, the public frenzy to stock up on ban lan gen. One of the adverse effects the herbal remedy has had is that it undermines the professional work of Chinese health authorities.
In contrast, the World Health Organization's guidelines for warding off the flu seem much more reasonable. Their website lists various ways of prevention including hand and respiratory hygiene and staying away from diseased or dead animals.
It is worth noting though, that compared to ten years ago when the SARS epidemic killed nearly 800 people in China, the country has made significant progress in communication and information disclosure.