11 October 2005

Endangered Species Get A Lift From Viagra

by Kate Melville

Much to the dismay of Western conservationists, traditional Chinese medicine has often relied on a bizarre mix of animal parts to cure ailments ranging from gout to erectile dysfunction. Preparations containing tiger bone, tiger penis, crushed sea horse and rhino horn are all part of the Chinese apothecaries animal arsenal. But that may be changing, and the beneficiaries are a wide range of animal species that have traditionally been sought for their virility enhancing properties. A study, in the journal Environmental Conservation, suggests that Chinese men are switching from traditional Chinese medicine remedies to the drug Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction.

The researchers, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Alaska, say they predicted the trend at the advent of Viagra's release in 1998, but at the time were pooh-poohed by conservationists. "When we proposed that Viagra might make inroads into traditional Chinese medicine treatments for impotence, conservationists told us we were naïve and that consumers were unwilling to use a product outside their own medical tradition," said UNSW researcher Bill von Hippel.

The study was based on data from men attending a large traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Hong Kong. They were questioned about their use of traditional and Western treatments for arthritis, indigestion, gout and impotence. The findings were unambiguous said von Hippel. "First, significantly more men had formerly used a traditional Chinese medicine treatment for impotence than were current users. Second, they were significantly more likely to be using a Western treatment for impotence than a traditional treatment. Finally, among men who formerly used either Western or tradional treatments for impotence, they were more likely to switch from a traditional treatment to a Western drug than vice versa. In fact, nobody had switched from a Western drug to a traditional treatment for impotence."

"The fact is that prior to the commercial availability of Viagra in 1998, no product in any medical tradition had been proven to be an effective and non-intrusive treatment of erectile dysfunction. So despite their history of using traditional medicines and their alleged suspicions of Western medicine, the men we interviewed chose the product that works best," von Hippel added.

But while a number of species will benefit from this new found confidence in Western medicine, others won't be so lucky. It seems that Chinese men still favor traditional remedies for other conditions like arthritis, indigestion and gout. And with the market for traditional remedies valued annually at more than $20 billion, that may push many species to the brink of extinction.

Source: University of New South Wales