Fringe Medical Practices in Thailand
by Isaac Olson
2 December 2010
Stem cell treatments and research is regulated in Thailand by central authorities. However, prior to 2009 no government regulations were in force. Rather, medical institutions were responsible for regulating themselves.14 After international criticism of Thai hospitals and clinics offering many unproven and potentially dangerous stem cell treatments, the Thai government decided it was time to take action by regulating the use of stem cells by central authorities.15 There was also a case in 2006 of a woman with a debilitating kidney disease receiving stem cell treatment in a Bangkok clinic and dying afterward. A later autopsy showed that the stem cell treatment probably contributed to her death.16 Another event prompted action when South Korean stem cell cloning fraud Hwang Woo Suk moved to Thailand in 2007 to take advantage of the lack of regulations.17 The Medical Council of Thailand is the governing body of doctors regulating the conduct and practice of medicine in the kingdom. It registers and issues licenses and can revoke licenses as well.18 The Medical Council is the main regulatory body overseeing stem cell research. Doctors giving stem cell therapy have to be certified by the Medical Council. Moreover, any institution, public or private, wanting to do stem cell research must first get the approval of the Medical Council's ethical committee in addition to their home institution's ethical committee. The Medical Council also regulates stem cell treatments and only allows scientifically scrutinized treatments.19
The Ministry of Public Health which oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has a hand in the regulation of stem cell therapy. In 2009, the FDA said stem cells and their products would be regulated as drugs.20 The FDA, using its enforcement capabilities, banned the advertising and sale of cosmetic products containing stem cells, and warned against facial treatments involving stem cells.21 Also having a hand in regulation through enforcement is the Public Health Ministry's Department of Health Services Support which oversees private medical providers.22 The Public Health Ministry also warned families paying large amounts of money to save umbilical cord stem cells that this practice may not work and will be costly over time.23
Cloning has been a much talked about fringe medical practice for decades now. Most of us might remember the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, which even helped spur the creation of a Thai movie known simply as Cloning. In 2005, a Thai scientist also began cloning super cows after the importation of U.S. Cattle was banned.24 The cloning of Dolly and other animals is known as reproductive cloning, the benefit of which has come to be questionable due to complications found in cloned animals. The most promising form of cloning is therapeutic cloning of human stem cells which has a great deal of medical uses.25 Currently, it is used in skin grafts and the treatment of spinal cord injuries, but its use in curing other diseases by creating whole organs or repairing existing ones is still under study.26
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Cloning in 2005 which prohibited the use of human cloning if it violated human dignity. However, the resolution was non-binding and much of its language open to interpretation.28 In Thailand, therapeutic cloning is allowed, but reproductive cloning is banned.27
If you had bothered to see the 1997 action thriller Face/off, you just might get the wrong idea about how face transplants work. For starters, the recipient of the new face little resembles the face donor.29 This is due to the fact that the underlying bone structure affects the facial appearance. Patients also have to take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent their bodies from rejecting the tissue, but these drugs can cause a number of long term serious problems.30 Moreover, the first partial face transplant was not achieved until 2005 in France and was performed on a woman who had been mauled by her dog. To date, eleven successful partial and full face transplants have been completed in the world. The most complicated one was a full face transplant done in Spain of this year.31 Closer to Thailand, China is the only Asian country to have successfully completed a face transplant.32
There have been no reports of attempted or successful face transplants in Thailand. This is probably due to the fact that it is an incredibly complex, complicated, and expensive procedure, the effects of which are still being studied. For example, the full face transplant conducted in Spain of this year involved 30 doctors and 22 hours of operation.33 There are no laws banning or specifically regulating face transplants in Thailand. However, doctors performing experimental surgeries must receive the approval of their institute's ethical board and physicians are subject to the scrutiny of the Medical Council.
Face transplants may not yet be happening in Thailand, but face procedures are common. These are for cosmetic reasons and a Google search will bring up a plethora of clinics and hospitals which perform cosmetic facial procedures often called facial rejuvenation. Individual parts of the face can be improved through surgery, and this is popular for women and men over 40 years old to minimize the effects of aging. Some examples of face procedures are: facelift, eyelid surgery, cheek implants, jaw surgery, lip enhancement, and rhinoplasty (nose surgery). Cosmetic surgeons caution that it takes time to heal and patients will feel uncomfortable for some time after the surgery. It is also important to note that patients have a difficult time receiving compensation from botched cosmetic surgeries.
In the past, cancer was a far more rare disease, but today it has become one of the most common serious mainstream illnesses. Also in the past, Thailand was still in the developmental stage where the focus on public health was on essential areas such as access to clean drinking water. As Thailand has become more and more modern, the focus on public health has changed to more rare but equally serious diseases. The kingdom has been experiencing higher rates of cancer in recent years, therefore, the country has made moves to better treat the illness among its general population. This has involved more of a focus on cheaper drugs and treatments and more emphasis on cancer research. Private international hospitals have also opened wards to treat international cancer patients. All this has brought cancer treatment from the fringes of medical practice into the mainstream.
Cancer is a disease where cells begin to divide uncontrollably. Cancer cells can also infect tissues and be transported to other parts of the body through the bloodstream. The National Cancer Institute says cancer kills 60,000 people a year in Thailand and another 100,000 new cases are reported yearly. Breast cancer is the number one killer in Thailand taking the lives of 12 Thai women a day.
In response to the increasing rates of cancer, member of the Thai royal family have patronized cancer treatment and research facilities. The Queen Sirikit Centre for Breast Cancer was opened at Chulalongkorn Hospital under the Thai Red Cross Red Cross Society. Queen Sirikit donated two million baht to the center. Another facility is the Chulabhorn Research Institute founded by Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol who is the youngest daughter of the current king and queen. She is president of the institute and has a PhD in organic chemistry. Cancer research is one of the center's three main focus areas, and it is especially interested in the use of natural Thai products to treat and prevent diseases such as cancer. Also, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana sold one of her fashion collections for the National Cancer Institute.
One issue is access to cost effective cancer treatment drugs. In 2008, there was a disagreement between the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Public Health concerning patent rights.34 The intellectual Property Rights Act allows the Public Health Ministry to use compulsory licensing to lower the cost of important drugs by allowing the marketing of generic versions.35 From 2007 to 2008, the FDA imposed compulsory licensing on Aids, heart disease, and cancer drugs.36 This was supported by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Doctors Without Borders, but opposed by pharmaceutical companies. The World Trade Organization (WTO) allows compulsory licensing, but the United States and Europe oppose it.37
Medical Tourism and Medical Practices in Thailand
It is clear that Thailand offers a plethora of medical services to locals and international visitors alike. The medical facilities of the country have been upgraded largely through international investment, but Thailand is still not on the cutting edge of the latest medical advances. However, after other countries have blazed a trail, Thailand has been adept at adopting the latest medical practices in a timely fashion, whether they be fringe or otherwise. Although Thai authorities are concerned about the quality of medical practices in Thailand, and have a pattern of waiting for controversy to arise before taking action, the newly introduced Thailand Medical Malpractice Victim Protection Bill will also assist in pushing Thailand higher in the ranking of quality medical tourism destinations.
14. “Stem Cell Therapy in Thailand,” Health-Tourism.com, 2008, http://www.health-tourism.com/stem-cell-therapy/thailand/.
15. Sirinart Sirisunthon and Pongphon Sarnsamak, “New Stem-Cell Regulation Draws Flak,” The Nation (Bangkok, February 5, 2010), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/02/05/national/New-stem-cell-regulation-draws-flak-30121866.html.
16. Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Stem-Cell Patient Dies in Bangkok,” The Nation (Bangkok, August 2, 2010), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/08/02/national/Stem-cell-patient-dies-in-Bangkok-30135005.html.
17. “Disgraced Cloning Scientist Flees to Thailand,” AFP, September 18, 2007, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5hKjgz8OpBf9ch90oJIWxjFigM9pw.
18. Somsak Lolekha, “Role of Thai Medical Council in Regulating Ethics of Private Practicioners,” n.d., http://www.pdfdownload.org/pdf2html/view_online.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hum.au.dk%2Fhsre%2FDocs%2FPresentations%2F2_Professional%2520Org%2520%26%2520other%2520NGOs%2520cont%2F1_Role%2520of%2520MC%2520in%2520regulating%2520ethics.pdf.
“Medical Council Issues New Rules on Stem-Cell Research,” The Nation
(Bangkok, February 4, 2010), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/Medical-Council-issues-new-rules-on-stem-cell-rese-30121855.html; Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Medical Council Tightens Rules on Stemcell Research,” The Nation
(Bangkok, February 13, 2010), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/02/13/national/Medical-Council-tightens-rules-on-stemcell-researc-30122470.html; Sirisunthon and Sarnsamak, “New Stem-Cell Regulation Draws Flak”; “Stem Cell Therapy in Thailand.”
20. “Stem Cell Therapy in Thailand.”
21. Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Medical Council to Punish Doctors Who Do Stemcell Therapy,” The Nation (Bangkok, July 30, 2008), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2008/07/30/national/Medical-council-to-punish-doctors-who-do-stemcell--30079306.html; Pongphon Sarnsamak, “FDA Warns About Facial Treatments,” The Nation (Bangkok, March 2, 2008), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2008/03/02/headlines/FDA-warns-about-facial-treatments-30066981.html.
22. Pennapa Hongthong, “Central Ethics Panel to be Formed,” The Nation (Bangkok, September 22, 2007), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2007/09/22/national/Central-ethics-panel-to-be-formed-30049870.html; Sarnsamak, “FDA Warns About Facial Treatments.”
23. Pennapa Hongthong, “Ministry Warns of High Cost,” The Nation (Bangkok, August 31, 2007), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2007/08/31/national/Ministry-warns-of-high-cost-30047183.html.
24. AFP, “Thailand Cloning Supercows,” News 24, February 22, 2005, http://www.news24.com/SciTech/News/Thailand-cloning-supercows-20050220.
25. “Cloning & Stem Cells,” Genetics and Public Policy Center, May 2006, http://www.dnapolicy.org/science.clone.php; “Cloning,” The University of Utah, 2010, http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/tech/cloning/; Bruce A. Robinson, “Reproductive and Therapeutic Cloning,” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Religious Tolerance, January 9, 2007, http://www.religioustolerance.org/cloning.htm; U.S. Department of Energy, “Cloning Fact Sheet,” Government Agency, Human Genome Project Information, May 11, 2009, http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/cloning.shtml.
26. “Therapeutic Cloning vs Reproductive Cloning,” Women's Health, 2010, http://www.womens-health.co.uk/stem_cell_ethics.html.
27. “United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning A/RES/59/280,” Genomics Gateway, March 29, 2009, http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/sbtwc/gateway/HEALTH/Cloning.htm; “GENERAL ASSEMBLY ADOPTS UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON HUMAN CLONING BY VOTE OF 84-34-37,” n.d., http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2005/ga10333.doc.htm.
28. Kristin Matthews, “World Cloning Policies,” Connexion, August 3, 2007, http://cnx.org/content/m14836/latest/.
29. Donors must be living, but brain dead patients with no chance of recovery whose blood a tissue closely match the receiver.
Stephanie Watson, “How Face Transplants Work,” Discovery Health
, 2010, http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/modern/face-transplant.htm.
31. “Full Face Transplant 'A Success',” BBC, April 23, 2010, sec. Health, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8639437.stm.
32. “'First Face Transplant' for China,” BBC, April 14, 2006, sec. Asia-Pacific, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4910372.stm.
33. “BBC News - Full face transplant 'a success',” n.d., http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8639437.stm.
Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Health Groups Defend Compulsory Licensing Against Commerce, US push,” The Nation
(Bangkok, March 4, 2009), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2009/03/04/national/Health-groups-defend-compulsory-licensingagainst-C-30097099.html.
35. Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Review of Licensing Procedure,” The Nation (Bangkok, February 8, 2008), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2008/02/08/politics/Review-of-licensing-procedure-30064755.html.
36. arnsamak, “Health Groups Defend Compulsory Licensing Against Commerce, US push.
37. “Generic Drug Debate Intensifies,” The Nation (Bangkok, March 6, 2008), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2008/03/06/national/Generic-drug-debate-intensifies-30067304.html; Petchanet Pratruangkrai, Danielle Kirk, and Pongphon Sarnsamak, “Exporters Fear Drug Licensing Will Hurt Trade,” The Nation (Bangkok, February 15, 2008), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2008/02/15/headlines/Exporters-fear-drug-licensing-will-hurt-trade-30065470.html.
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