Cancer patients told to boil herbs after fungus found in stool

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am

Cancer patients are being warned against consuming uncooked Chinese medicine after a University of Hong Kong medical team found a potentially fatal fungus in a patient and his herbal powder.

The 54-year-old patient, suffering from a blood disease, was due to have a bone-marrow transplant early this month when doctors found the fungus lichtheimia hongkongensi in his stool samples and the herbal medicine.

The checks were made at Queen Mary Hospital under a new process introduced after another fungus in a Western medicine killed five leukaemia patients in the same hospital.

University Professor Ho Pak-leung said lichtheimia hongkongensis was harmless to healthy people, but could cause fatal infections in the intestines, brain and blood of those with low immunity.

It was among three types of fungus found in the stool samples of the patient who had been taking the herbal medicine Solannum Nigrum, or black nightshade, for more than a year. The herb is said to have a therapeutic effect on cancer.

'The patient is told to take the herbal powder with lukewarm water. The powder is not boiled so the water is not hot enough to kill the fungus,' Ho said.

The department reported the case to the Department of Health last week. The patient, who did not show any symptoms of infection, has stopped taking the powder since the finding.

Ho called on the department to review regulations governing the sale of herbal powder. Some Chinese medicine clinics have been replacing traditional Chinese herbal tea, boiled in hot water, with herbal powder taken in lukewarm water, to save time.

'As the trend changes, the guidelines or regulations should also be updated. Cancer patients and those with low immunity should boil all Chinese medicines to avoid fungal infections,' Ho said.

Lichtheimia hongkongensis was discovered by another University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Patrick Woo Chiu-yat last month. It is known to have killed at least two Hong Kong patients, including an elderly man who had a liver transplant overseas.

Last March, HKU found five leukaemia patients had died with a rare fungal infection after taking Purinol, a brand of allopurinol, produced by the drug company Europharm and contaminated by the fungus rhizopus microsporus.

The incident uncovered a serious of drug safety blunders and prompted a review by the government and the Hospital Authority.

A Department of Health spokesman said the patient in the latest case took the medicine after visiting a Chinese medicine practitioner.

The department has advised patients to take and store medicine according to medical practitioners' instructions.