Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i


AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 16, 2002 - PINA Nius Online)---New Zealand health officials have joined investigations into claims kava-based products have caused widespread liver damage, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Reports from Europe say consumption of kava products has been linked to hepatitis and caused a need for liver transplants in some people.

A New Zealand Ministry of Health spokeswoman said that -- as well as their own investigation -- inquiries are also being made with public health officials elsewhere.

The moves come amidst mounting worries for such Pacific Islands as Fiji, Hawai'i, and Vanuatu over the future of their lucrative kava export trade to pharmaceutical companies.

On New Year's Eve, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced an inquiry into the use of kava as an herbal remedy to promote sleep and stress relief.

Britain's Medicines Control Agency has already negotiated a "voluntary" withdrawal of kava products from store shelves with herbal food industry organizations.

In France, products containing kava have been suspended from sale and a recommendation was made that patients stop taking the substance.

It came after Germany and Swiss health authorities told the French Health Products Safety Agency that they had recorded "about 30 cases of hepatitis" among people who had taken kava-based products.

Kava is extracted from the root of a species of pepper plant called Piper methysticum, which thrives in the Pacific Islands. Kava is widely used in the Pacific Islands as a social drink and in traditional ceremonies.

The New Zealand Herald said kava products are sold in health food shops, on the Internet and even in supermarkets. They are advertised as a "natural" remedy that is supposed to relieve stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation, mental clarity and mild euphoria, the Herald said.

They are supposedly free of the side effects of prescription drugs, the newspaper added.

The New Zealand Herald said some users add a powdered extract to tea, coffee, cocoa or milk.

In New Caledonia, Dr. Yann Barguil, a biopharmacist and researcher at Gaston Bourret Hospital, told Les Nouvelles CalÚdoniennes that he was not surprised by the emergence of a kava-related pathology. But he said that only about one person in 170,000 was potentially affected.

"In New Caledonia, we have detected three cases of hepatitis linked to the consumption of kava," he said.

"We believe the active properties of this plant, the kava lactones, have an effect on the liver's enzymes.

"And one person in about 170,000 has in his or her liver a type of enzyme that, if combined with kava, could produce a toxic enzyme," Dr. Barguil said.

"This could provoke a sort of allergy that would eventually destroy the liver."

Fiji and Vanuatu kava industry leaders have urged Pacific Islands governments to conduct their own studies to show kava is safe.

Nearly 50 pharmaceutical companies using kava have appealed a preliminary German decision to ban the sale of kava products, except those containing only minute amounts.

The European pharmaceutical companies appealing the ban said there is no evidence to link kava to cases of liver problems, the Honolulu Advertiser reported.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA)

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