The Korea Herald


Toddler’s hair loss triggers debate among health care experts

By Claire Lee

Published : Aug. 12, 2016 - 16:49

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The recent controversial case of a 2-year-old who lost all the hair on his body after taking herbal medicine has triggered heated debate among traditional Korean doctors and those who practice Western medicine here.

The 27-month-old reportedly started losing his hair -- including his eyelashes and eyebrows -- after taking the medicine in November. His mother acquired the remedies from the Hamsoa Oriental Clinic in southern Seoul, which is one of the most firmly established traditional medical clinics in the country. The boy is now completely bald and has been told by nontraditional physicians that he only has a 10 percent chance of regrowing his hair.
Image capture from SBS news Image capture from SBS news
The case was publicized just about five months after the Korean government announced its plan to standardize traditional herbal medicine’s quality to ensure safety -- making it into tablets and syrup -- in January. Currently sold in packs of prepared herbs or decocted herbs in drinkable pouches, the medicine is often considered difficult for health authorities to scientifically review for quality and safety.

The Korea Medical Association, one of the largest bodies of nontraditional physicians in Korea, claimed the specific case shows how “dangerous” herbal medicine can be, especially under the current system lacking clinically testing before use. The organization has been feuding with the Association of Korean Medicine, the biggest group of traditional doctors here. Since last year, the group has been fiercely protesting the government’s proposal to allow traditional physicians to use modern-day medical equipment, such as ultrasound machines and X-rays, for diagnosis -- claiming it is extremely unsafe for the general public.

“Right now the reason why herbal medicine is being exempt from clinical trials -- which are required for all nontraditional drugs -- is because they were proven to be safe by (Korea’s) ancient medical texts,” said a KMA official. “But we think this is a problem and is unsafe for patients. It is extremely important for all herbal medicine to be reviewed thoroughly through clinical trials before being approved for sale.”

Following the diagnosis of the child’s hair loss, the Hamsoa Oriental Clinic requested an insurance company launch an investigation. The firm concluded the clinic is “partially responsible” for the child’s condition and asked them to pay his parents 3 million won ($2,720) in compensation. Still, the clinic claimed the child’s hair loss may not have been caused by the herbal medicine they produced for him.

“We believe his condition is alopecia areata, also known as spot baldness, a type of hair loss that occurs when one’s immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles,” the clinic said in a statement it sent when approached by The Korea Herald. “As far as we know, spot baldness does not occur from taking herbal medicine.”

The Association of Korean Medicine, on the other hand, claimed the child had taken antibiotics about 15 days prior to the herbal medicine. “We think it’s too early to conclude that the hair loss has been caused by the herbal medicine,” an official from the organization said. “A thorough examination and investigation is needed.”

By Claire Lee (