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ABSTRACT: Herbal medicines have a long tradition of therapeutic use. However, they may occasionally cause dose-related (type A) or idiosyncratic (type B) toxicity and herb-drug interactions are also possible. Toxicity can arise as a result of misidentification or adulteration of the preparation. Legislation (the Directive on traditional herbal medicinal products 2004/24/EC) was enacted on 30 April 2004 to improve public health protection and promote the free movement of traditional medicinal products in the EU. It requires each Member State to set up a simplified registration scheme for manufactured traditional herbal medicines that are suitable for use without medical supervision. Evidence of 30 years of traditional use, at least 15 years of which should normally be within the EU, is required to permit minor claims, replacing the requirement to demonstrate efficacy. Safety is based on evidence in the published literature, although the regulator can also ask for more data if there are safety concerns. The pharmacovigilance requirements and quality standards are the same as for licensed medicines. Patient information is similar to that for any over-the-counter medicine, with an additional requirement for a statement on labels and in advertisements that the indication is based on traditional use. A European positive list of herbal substances will set out the indication, strength, dosing recommendations, route of administration and other information on safe use. Where a product complies with the list, the applicant will not need to demonstrate either the traditional use or the safety of the product. The list will be compiled by the recently established Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products at the European Medicines Agency. EU Member States were required to comply with the Directive by 30 October 2005. Traditional herbal medicinal products already on the market when the Directive became law need not comply with its provisions for 7 years after its coming into force. The public need to be aware that 'natural' does not necessarily mean 'safe' in all circumstances. They should be fully informed about all medicines they take. Consideration also needs to be given to effective regulation of herbal medicines practitioners, so that they are identifiable in law, are governed by professional codes of practice and have agreed standards of training and competency. There are many references to herbal medicines in Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, which was written around 1595. A herbal medicine (distilled liquor) was almost certainly used to put Juliet into a deep sleep. A poison, possibly of herbal origin, was used by Romeo to take his own life when he thought his beloved Juliet was dead, rather than sleeping. While European herbal medicines regulation seeks to protect the public health by ensuring the necessary guarantees of quality, safety and efficacy, it was poor communication that appears to have triggered the chain of events leading to the death of Romeo and Juliet. Good communication between regulators, practitioners, patients and the public is necessary so that those who choose to take herbal medicines can do so with acceptable safety.
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