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The MHRA issues a stark warning about the dangers of buying unregulated herbal medicines

By Nicola Cottam , 08-May-2014

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has issued a string of warnings against a number of herbal medicines sold online and containing ingredients not authorised for the sale in the UK.

The first warning relates to Ayurvedic herbal medicine Shwasa Sanjeevani, manufactured by Valiyeri Vaidyasala, based in Kerala India, which is marketed as a natural treatment for asthma. However the product was found to contain the prescription drug dexamethasone that can cause irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, stomach ulcers and nervous system disorders.

The same ingredient was detected in Chinese herbal medicine, Ginseng Tu Chong Wan Lin Heong, for the treatment of arthritis, and other potentially dangerous prescription-only drugs - Sildenafil and Sibutramine – were discovered in a range of herbal slimming pills as well as a Chinese treatment for hair loss.

An MHRA spokesperson commented: These products are potentially dangerous and while none of them are authorised for sale in the UK, they can be bought on the internet. If you buy medicines from the Internet you run the risk of being supplied with medicines that are not safe or suitable to use. Natural does not mean safe.”

Under UK and European law manufacturers should have the appropriate product license from the MHRA in order to legally sell herbal medicines. These include the Marketing Authorisation (MA) license which ensures the safety, quality and efficacy of products, while Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) requires additional evidence to prove the authenticity of the herbal product as a traditional medicine.

In addition the European Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD) – live since May 2011 – requires each EU Member State to set up a traditional herbal registration scheme for manufactured traditional herbal medicines that are suitable for use without medical supervision.

The MHRA works closely with international colleagues, including Interpol, to restrict the number of illegally sold herbal medicines online, with some degree of success. However these latest alerts highlight the vulnerability of UK consumers who often do not understand or ignore the risks of buying herbal medicines from unregulated sources.

The MHRA added: “We are constantly working to tackle the problem of online sales of unlicensed ingredients in herbal products and international collaborations have lead to the closure of a number of internet sites. But this is a big industry and it is very difficult to regulate. Consumers should only buy products with a THR or other product license on the packaging.

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