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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3961

Senator BERNARDI (7:06 PM) —Mr President, it is a pleasure to make my first comments in this chamber under your presidency and I congratulate you on that. I rise tonight to talk about an issue that was raised with me by a constituent, Mrs Elaine Hartley, who was diagnosed by her eye specialist with macular degeneration and was advised to start taking a herbal supplement. Mrs Hartley started taking the supplement as directed. She began to feel nauseous and went off to her local GP, who diagnosed her with a mild gastric infection.

After a few weeks of taking the supplement and no sign of getting any better Mrs Hartley thought it might be a good idea to stop taking it, which she did. There was an immediate effect and she began to feel better. However, Mrs Hartley went to her local pharmacist to see if they could recommend an alternative supplement, seeing as she did not have any success with the one that her doctor had recommended. She said she wanted to continue taking something as her doctor had told her it would be a good idea as she was coming up to an appointment with her eye specialist.

The pharmacist recommended another product, a herbal supplement. Aware of what had previously occurred, Mrs Hartley made sure that she took this supplement with food and in accordance with all the directions. About an hour after initially taking the supplement, Mrs Hartley was struck with a severe headache that got worse as the day went on. She lay down on the couch and that was the last thing she remembered until she woke up in hospital with a fracture to the base of her spine and severe muscle pains. Mrs Hartley’s husband said that shortly after his wife had lain down on the couch he noticed that she had begun foaming at the mouth, her arms had become paralysed or very rigid and her body had gone stiff. He was unable to get a response from his wife, so Mr Hartley called an ambulance. Mrs Hartley was in pretty good health before this incident. She has been advised that she likely suffered an adverse reaction to the supplement.

In my local supermarket, and I am sure many other local supermarkets, you can buy the exact same supplement along with many other supplements that have caused a number of people considerable pain, distress and suffering. I went online and looked at the manufacturer’s website. There were no details displayed about any potential or likely side effects of this product. There was no advice as to where one could lodge a complaint about it or register any sort of side effect of the product. In fact, there was no information for the consumer about what to do or who to contact in the event of a severe reaction.

Mrs Hartley raised this with me and I did some investigation. In the past decade, there have been 62 reported deaths in Australia linked to complementary medicine and alternative health treatments. Seven women have suffered liver failure, five of whom needed a liver transplant due to a side effect from taking a supplement that contained black cohosh.

The herb ephedra, promoted as a slimming agent, caused severe reactions in 19,000 users around the world. Recently, the Therapeutic Goods Administration sent out a warning about excessive vitamin B6 intake after it was reported that two women began receiving ‘electric shocks’ to their feet and lower legs. These are just some of the instances that I have uncovered about the severe side effects of some complementary medicines and the deaths that have occurred because of the effectively self-regulated complementary health industry.

The use of complementary medicine is increasing across developed nations. Australians now spend more money out of their own pocket on complementary medicine and alternative medicines than they do on prescription medication. Conservative figures estimate that $2 billion is spent nationally by two-thirds of the adult population.

Obviously, there are some problems with this, because we have a responsibility to ensure that the claims of manufacturers are reputable for these sorts of products, that these products have been adequately tested and that the public is at no meaningful risk. The previous government invested $4 million to help establish the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in an attempt to strengthen and coordinate research nationwide. We announced a further $7 million contribution towards research into the effectiveness of complementary products. I acknowledge that the Rudd Labor government has chosen to honour this commitment. However, more needs to be done, and the government is dragging its feet a little bit on this.

I say that because the government representative on this, Senator McLucas, made in January this year a public statement advising that the Rudd government has asked the TGA to provide a formal response to concerns about the regulation of complementary medicines which were raised in an article in the Australian Medical Journal. Senator McLucas said quite strongly, and I support her in it, ‘I don’t want guff; I want a response to these proposals that is serious and deals with the issues that are there.’ In June, some six months later, Senator McLucas parroted the government line and said that the government was considering the establishment of a website. The public may well groan at that—not another website. But they are only considering its establishment. In June on the AM program, Senator McLucas acknowledged, quite rightly, that the information out there for consumers on complementary medicine is patchy. However, the next day Senator McLucas said:

We have a system that is robust and that provides good information to consumers without putting a burden on the sector that would add a layer of expense that would potentially not be in the best interest of the consumer.

Senator McLucas should continue to push and drive this issue. She has acknowledged that there is a real sense of urgency here. On 1 August she was quoted by the Age as stating that there was a real sense of urgency about reforming the complaints process and the information available to consumers. Over eight months, there has been an acknowledgment of this problem, which I think that this government was wise to make. That continues our acknowledgment of the problem from late last year. We need some action on this.

Currently, manufacturers of complementary medicines use an online computer system to register and get their products approved. All that a manufacturer has to do to gain a listing number through this electronic system is enter the ingredients into ELF, which is the electronic listing facility, and select from a drop-down list the purpose of the supplement. They can add a few words of their own in an allocated space before confirming that they have the evidence to back up whatever claims they want to make. They then pay a fee and are allocated a listing number. That is the approval process for a complementary medicine that could, in any combination with other products, whether prescription medicines or other complementary medicines, act to give someone an adverse reaction that could result in something similar to what Mrs Hartley experienced or something even worse.

The complementary medicine industry has gone to some pains not to endorse this. The chief executive of one organisation has boasted that the reality is that nobody has died from taking complementary medicine. This claim I find preposterous given my research into it. Many other people disagree with this chief executive. It is a serious issue that we need to address. I am not one to support increasing bureaucracy or government regulation, but in this instance there is reasonable cause for people to be advised of the potential side effects where they are known. Just as importantly, where they are unknown but are experienced, there must be an easy process for people to register what these side effects are. In the case of Mrs Hartley, she went back to her pharmacist. The pharmacist said, ‘There is nothing I can do.’ They would not accept a complaint. She said, ‘I’m going to stay here until you do something about this complaint.’

The pharmacist, obviously a busy man—and they are very reputable and highly regarded by members of the public—put a few strokes into the computer and said, ‘There you go—it’s done.’ Whether it was done, I do not know. Mrs Hartley got no response from the manufacturer. She contacted numerous government departments and the buck was passed on many occasions. I think that what happened to Mrs Hartley is very sad and I hope that no-one else experiences it, but I think that government actually has a role in this and I would encourage the Rudd Labor government to step up to the plate and stop spinning its wheels. I discussed this with Senator McLucas before making this remark, and I do not condemn Senator McLucas over this but I do encourage her to play a very active role in driving this through the government. I would like to think that any support that I could extend to her on behalf of consumers would be given. However, it is time for action and I would encourage her to take it.