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US doctors speak out

In December 2007, full-page reports appeared over three days in Hong Kong's Chinese-language Wen Wei Po newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Government in Hong Kong. The reporter undertook a four-month undercover investigation with the help of Animals Asia, and wrote a series of features that exposed the true horrors of bear farming today.

The articles were picked up by supporters all over the world, including by Eric H Busch MD, a member of the department of Anesthesiology at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, Louisiana, US and an expert in pain management. This was his letter to Wen Wei Po:

Mr Zhang Guo Liang
President
Wen Wei Po

Dear Mr. Zhang,

I represent a group of concerned doctors here in the United States. We have read your recent articles on the bear bile industry. We have been aware of bear farming for many years and are, like many individuals, distressed by the suffering of these animals. As interested physicians, we would like to express our viewpoint on several issues. Perhaps this will be helpful to those who find the relationship of bear bile to pharmaceuticals confusing.

By way of background, bile is a liquid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. This mixture of acids, cholesterol, water, and electrolytes aids in the digestion of food. The bile of all mammals contains a chemical called ursodeoxycholic acid or UDCA. UDCA is chemically very different from the other bile acids, which may account for its healing properties, and it has been recognized for at least forty years to be the therapeutic element of bear bile. For reasons we don't fully understand, bears have more UDCA in their bile than other animals, which may explain the historical basis for bear bile use in traditional Chinese medicine. We have never seen any evidence that there are any other therapeutic constituents of bear bile. This may be due to the corrosive nature of bile, which destroys most other substances including proteins and amino acids.

The effects of pharmaceutical UDCA on human systems have been studied extensively, resulting in the use of this drug worldwide for a number of specific diseases. These include primary biliary cirrhosis, sclerosing cholangitis, and gallstone disease. The potential application of UDCA in humans does not end there. Active research in the treatment of neurological disease, eye disease, and heart attack is promising.

This UDCA, a medication taken by millions of patients, is not taken from bears. It is produced by pharmaceutical companies from bile collected in slaughterhouses. The end result is a pharmaceutical product which is of known potency and purity, widely available under various trade names. It is our view that this medication has made the use of bear bile unnecessary. That being said, we suppose that if individuals wish to consume bile for indications that do not require the therapeutic properties of UDCA, bile of many types is readily available.

We find a number of flaws with bear farm products when they are considered as medicines. Farmed bears have a high rate of liver cancers, which are probably the result of chronic infection and inflammation of the gall bladder and liver. This, coupled with the collection techniques, results in bile that contains pus (white blood cells), debris, skin cells, and other impurities. We wonder if some of these elements are present in the compounds ingested by patients. In addition, it is difficult to know how much active drug is present in each sample. After all, each bear produces different amounts of UDCA at different times.

We want to stress that we do not intend to criticize traditional Chinese medicine for its use of bear bile. Bear bile was once a necessary part of their methods and we, along with millions of patients worldwide, are grateful for the discovery of UDCA by traditional Chinese medicine. That being said, change and evolution are a part of all progress, and while Western medicine has learned and benefited from traditional medicine, traditional medicine can do the same by making bear bile a part of its past.

Knowledge is power. UDCA is an important pharmaceutical which has the potential to improve human health. We hope that the governments of China and other Asian countries that now sanction bear farming will recognize this logic and act in the best interest of patients requiring UDCA and the bears that are part of this industry. By eliminating bear bile and publicly supporting the use of these widely available, clinically proven pharmaceuticals, these countries can actually enhance the health of those who need the benefits of UDCA while putting an end to bear farming.

Finally, there will be those who will dispute what we have said. They will refer to special elements of bile that cannot be reproduced in any pharmaceutical. With that in mind, we wonder how the confinement, pain, debilitation, and untimely death of the farm bear affect the healing properties that are attributed to its bile. The chi in a bear subjected to these conditions must be weak indeed.

The best health care involves the mixture of compassion, knowledge, skill, and those intangible elements that cannot be explained. We respectfully suggest that the use of bear bile is not only unnecessary, but also inconsistent with these ideals. We are hopeful that those who are receptive to change will find the facts and ideas presented herein helpful, and that our thoughts can spark a new debate on these important issues.

Respectfully,

Eric H. Busch M.D.
New Orleans, Louisiana
January 23, 2008

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