The death of a baby girl in northwestern China has prompted a call for tighter regulations on practitioners of a traditional Chinese therapeutic massage for children.
The four-month-old was taken to a community clinic in Xian, Shaanxi province, on November 30 where she was diagnosed with an upper respiratory tract infection.
She was prescribed a form of massage therapy called paediatric tui na to relieve her cold symptoms, which included a cough. After about 20 minutes of massage, her heartbeat and breathing stopped. The infant was taken to hospital where she died of multiple organ failure, according to Huashang Daily.
An inquest is under way to determine the cause of death but experts are not waiting for the results to urge for better regulations of an industry which requires no medical training and as little as two weeks’ instruction for its practitioners.
The use of tui na – which translates as “push and grab” – dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Industry insiders said the therapy was being offered for children with symptoms as diverse as diarrhoea, fever and even myopia in both hospitals and health clubs.
Sun Wuquan, director of the tui na department at Yueyang Hospital in Shanghai, said the therapy had been over-promoted in recent years but, above all, hospital-based providers of tui na should be qualified practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine with five to eight years’ training in the technique. They should also have strict training in paediatrics, he said.
“Paediatrics is a department with high risks … Even doctors with professional training may have difficulties, let alone those massage therapists without,” Sun said. “It is a safety hazard to let a massage therapist treat an ill child, but it is generally OK if it is just for the purpose of health improvement.”
Commenting on the Xian case, Sun said “there has been no clinical record of multiple organ failure caused by paediatric tui na before, and neither can they be theoretically linked.”
Several training organisations said a course of just two weeks was enough to become a “veteran” tui na massage therapist. According to a staff member, surnamed Huang, at training provider Shen Na Shi Jia in Beijing, a person with zero experience only needed to pass a test after a two-week course to receive a “senior child massage therapist” certificate from a non-governmental chamber of commerce.
“We have students across the country and they all use this certificate to start their own businesses,” Huang said.
Another training centre, Mei Bei Ying in Wuhan, Hubei province, offers an even shorter course of paediatric tui na every month – just five days and for free, although it does not guarantee a certificate. About 10,000 people have been trained there and recommended for jobs since it was founded 10 years ago, according to a staff member identifying herself as Lin.
In the hospital that runs the clinic that treated the four-month-old baby girl in Xian, there are nearly 60 massage therapists with qualifications issued by various government bodies, but only two have a doctor’s licence, according to The Beijing News.
Shenzhen paediatrician Pei Honggang, whose online presence has educated and informed many parents, said he believed the therapy did not cause direct damage to health, but could lead to patients missing out on prompt, standardised treatment.
Commenting last week on the case to his 2 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo, Pei said that before deciding whether to use massage therapy the patient’s illness should be diagnosed and that required medical knowledge.
“Some aunts and uncles, without any medical background, try to treat illnesses after just taking some tui na courses, or even reading a book on the subject, and there are people who believe in them,” Pei said.
“The issue is not that the general public lack medical knowledge, but that they lack basic logic. It’s a scam, not medicine, to say that [a massage] can cure everything,” he said.
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