years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
Vietnam’s top traditional medicine doctor warns bear bile tonics can kill
21 July 2010
Vietnam’s highest-ranking traditional medicine practitioner has warned consumers to stop taking bear bile products or risk liver and kidney damage – even death.
Doctor Nguyen Xuan Huong has joined Animals Asia’s campaign to end bear bile farming after seeing the shocking effects of bile consumption on some of his patients, including two government officials who died after taking bear bile tonics.
Dr Huong, who is Chairman of the Traditional Medicine Association of Vietnam – and carries the title of People’s Doctor the highest ranking position in the country’s medical profession – has treated 10 patients for bear bile poisoning since 1985, including two he couldn’t save. Dr Huong’s last bear bile patient was in 2006 – a 55-year-old male from Hanoi who had consumed too much bear bile and was jaundiced. Dr Huong’s diagnosis was damage to the liver caused by the bear bile. He successfully treated this patient, but for others it was too late.
When the Director of Construction in Quang Ninh Province came to Dr Huong in 1995 it was already too late – his skin was yellow, he couldn’t walk or talk and he had severe cirrhosis of the liver. He died two weeks later aged 50. The director had consumed bear bile mixed with wine for virility.
Dr Huong’s second fatal case was in 2002 – a 75-year-old Hanoi doctor, whose son kept bears, had taken 2cc of bear bile mixed with wine as a health tonic. By the time he arrived at Dr Huong’s Hanoi clinic, his body was covered in dark patches and his fingernails and toenails had turned black and later fell off. Dr Huong treated the man for a year with herbal medicine to increase the function of the liver, but his organs were two severely damaged and he died from the poisoning.
“In each of these 10 cases, all had damage to the liver and in most cases, the liver was almost gone – the part that was left was swollen, necrotic and hard,” Dr Huong said. “Bear bile also causes kidney failure.” He said other symptoms included loss of appetite, fatigue, red eyes, aches and pains in the body, blood in the urine and severe dehydration and perspiration.
Dr Huong said bear bile was rarely used in authentic traditional medicine and was more likely to be sold as a quack “cure” for hangovers or impotence. “I’ve read 17,000 traditional medicine formulas and only six mentioned the use of bear bile and even then, its use is minimal and it has little effect. People should never use bear bile – even for complaints such as fertility and strengthening the body. Eighty per cent of those consuming bear bile will have liver damage from drinking even 2cc, and if you mix it with rice wine, the damage will be worse.”
Dr Huong, who served two terms in Vietnam’s National Assembly, has repeatedly raised the issue in the assembly but failed to make an impression. “Even highly educated people still don’t understand the dangers. Bear bile serves a purpose in bears – it aids in their digestion, just as human bile aids in our digestion. It goes against nature for humans to consume bile from bears; it attacks the organs - and the bears’ become ill when their bile is extracted. “Bile is obviously different in each species and is there to serve the animal in whose body it exists.”
Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson said she hoped Dr Huong’s decision to go public would prompt health and customs authorities to look urgently into the risks of bear bile consumption. “Korean tourists are lining up to visit bear farms in Vietnam on organised bus tours, many leaving with vials of fresh bear bile as a hangover cure – and bear bile is sold on the black market in Chinatowns around the world. The longer it takes the authorities to act, the more people will fall ill and possibly die.”
Dr Huong qualified as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner in 1972 after starting his studies in 1965. He boasts 16 generations of family working in TCM. Dr Huong studied for six years at the Beijing University of TCM.
Animals Asia’s Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen said that while bear bile extraction was illegal in Vietnam, lack of enforcement meant the practice was still widespread. The bears are drugged – usually with the illegal drug, ketamine – removed from their small cages, restrained with ropes and jabbed in the abdomen with four-inch needles until the gall bladder is found. The bile is extracted with a catheter and medicinal pump. There are currently over 4,000 bears on farms in Vietnam.
In November 2005, Animals Asia signed an agreement with the Vietnamese government to rescue 200 bears and care for them at our Vietnam Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park. Our rescue centre is currently home to over 60 bears confiscated by the government and is ready to receive more bears rescued from bear farms.