Animals Asia calls for action as pathologists warn of contaminants in bear bile

Source:  Animals Asia Foundation
Date: September 22, 2008

Animals Asia Foundation has called on the Chinese authorities to look urgently into the possible harmful side-effects of contaminated bear bile sold as a cure-all in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The foundation has also relayed its concerns to the Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, and the World Health Organisation.

Animals Asia’s China Relations Director Christie Yang said she had decided to go public in the wake of the contaminated milk powder scandal that has left three infants dead and more than 6,000 ill. Ms Yang said experts had compelling health concerns about the bile taken from farmed bears as it was riddled with impurities, including faeces, urine, blood and pus.

She said that together with Chinese and Vietnamese pathologists, Animals Asia was compiling a growing dossier of evidence that the bears tapped for their bile were developing liver cancers at an alarming rate. Asiatic black bears (or moon bears) held in captivity rarely contract liver tumours unless they are very old, but almost half of the rescued bears that have died were euthanised because of liver cancer.

Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson said the authorities should be asking what the bile taken from such sick bears was doing to the health of humans who consumed it. “The bears’ livers and gall bladders are often severely diseased, the bile contaminated with pus, blood and even faeces. A healthy bear’s bile is as fluid as water and ranges in colour from bright yellowy-orange to green. Our vets have described bile leaking from the gall bladders of our rescued bears as ‘black sludge’.”

The prized ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is used by TCM practitioners for a myriad of complaints, everything from hangovers to haemorrhoids. However, UDCA can be synthesised easily under laboratory conditions – the UDCA produced is pure, clean and reliable.

“For two years now, we have been telling the authorities of our concerns, but still nothing is being done. We can’t just stand by when so many families have been affected by the milk contamination scandal. Here we have a very similar scenario; people who take bear bile as a traditional medicine cure have a right to know just what it is that they are consuming,” Ms Robinson said.

Dr Wang Sheng Xian, a Chengdu pathologist, who is analysing the livers of bears that have died from liver cancer said: “The more I learn about the extraction of bile from bears, the more I would never recommend this kind of drug to my family and friends. I personally think we are better to use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears … this kind of drug could be harmful to people. There are many effective and affordable synthetic alternatives as well as more than 50 herbal alternatives.

“Although I respect TCM, what I have seen from the samples from caged bears makes me doubt that products like this work. Bear bile products produced by farmers are only processed by baking the bile into a powder and not refined. This kind of preparation does not eliminate the contaminants in the bile. As we can see, the bile causes very sick bears – can we use this kind of bile for medicine for humans, especially as it is baked at a low temperature? I personally think we had better use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears,” Dr Wang said.

A Vietnamese pathologist has also expressed grave concerns for the health of both humans and bears after conducting clinical examinations of the damaged gall bladders of three moon bears rescued from bile farms by Animals Asia.

Dr Dang van Duong, Chief Pathologist at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi said he was shocked by the condition of the bears and urged consumers to think twice before taking the bile from such diseased animals.

Dr Duong made the comments after conducting histo-pathological examinations of the gall bladder specimens of three bears that recently underwent cholecystectomies (removal of the gall bladder) at Animals Asia’s new Moon Bear Rescue Centre at Tam Dao near Hanoi. He found a substantial thickening of the wall of the gall bladder, a consequence of the bile extraction process.

Bears on farms in China, where bear farming is still legal, are subjected to the so-called “humane” free-dripping method of bile extraction on a daily basis. A permanent hole is cut into the bear’s abdomen through to its gall bladder. To extract the bile, the farmer pokes a tube into the hole and lets the bile drip out. Some farms still use permanently implanted catheters to drain the bile – a method that is now against China’s regulations.

In Vietnam, bile is extracted with the assistance of an ultrasound machine, catheter and medicinal pump. The bears are drugged – usually with ketamine – restrained with ropes and have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with four-inch needles until the gall bladder is found. The bile is then removed with a catheter and pump.

After examining the gall bladder of one of the Vietnam bears, and concluding that she had “severe chronic cholecystitis”, Dr Duong said: “I am wondering how this bear could have survived, because if this was a human sample, the person would have been dead long ago.” The other bears to undergo cholecystectomies had similarly degenerative gall bladders.

Dr Duong is collaborating with the Dean of Sydney University's medical faculty in establishing online pathology between Sydney University/Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney and Bach Mai Hospital. His pathology department provides pathology consultancy services to the French International Hospital in Hanoi and is a recognised reference laboratory.

Last year, Animals Asia’s veterinary team released the report, “Compromised health and welfare of bears in China’s bear bile farming industry, with special reference to the free-dripping bile extraction technique”.

The report, which was widely distributed among both conservation and health authorities on the mainland, stated: “AAF’s veterinarians hypothesise that the etiology of the cancer [in farmed bears] is related to the chronic inflammation, infection and trauma caused by bile extraction. Research is under way to investigate this hypothesis. In another context, consideration must be given to the potential effects on humans of the consumption of bear bile that is so contaminated with pus and inflammatory material.”

Ms Yang said senior members of Animals Asia had met with and conveyed their concerns a number of times to various departments in Beijing and Sichuan and the foundation was seeking a meeting with Sichuan authorities next week.


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