The dried flesh of dead infants appears to be the not-so-secret ingredient in a health supplement that is reportedly being smuggled out of China.
The performance-enhancement pills, touted for increasing vitality and sex drive, have been found in the luggage of tourists and in international mail, according to South Korean authorities.
They said they had confiscated nearly 17,500 of the human flesh capsules since last August, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
South Korean authorities warned that the pills could be dangerous to human health.
"This is gross, as well as creepy," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who consults regularly with the Centers for Disease Control.
"We have no idea how this material is processed and under what circumstances," he said. "If it's not done in a hygienic fashion to make assurances infections are excluded, it could contain viruses as well as bacteria."
The dried human tissue may also not have been sterilized, according to Schaffner. "It's an extremely dubious for an operation like this with the potential for infection complications."
It is not known whether these pills made of human flesh have appeared in the United States.
"Our experts in global health haven't heard about this subject," said Arleen Porcell, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Customs officials in South Korea are beefing up efforts to stop the alleged smuggling, apparently by ethnic Koreans living in northern Chinese cities.
Chinese folklore promotes the belief that a human fetus can cure disease and help with circulation and sexual performance.
Last year, the South Korean television station SBS aired a documentary that accused Chinese drug companies of collaborating with abortion clinics to produce the pills from dead fetuses.
The documentary claimed that DNA tests verified that the pills were made from powdered humans. The Chinese have so far been silent, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Today, American reports of the alleged smuggling stirred up revulsion in the anti-abortion community online.
Schaffner said the pills could transmit the drug-resistant bacteria MRSA that could be on the skin of a fetus. "If these fetuses went through the birth canal, they can quickly pick up bacteria," he said.
Because the birth canal is in close proximity to the rectum, other bacteria like e coli, salmonella and shigella could be present.
"We know that in China the occurrence of hepatitis B, the viral infection, is exceedingly high," said Schaffner. "That is also of concern."
"There are societies in some Southeastern Asian countries where hepatitis B is transmitted to the infant from premastication," he said. "The mother chews on a little bit of food and takes it out of her mouth and puts it into the baby's mouth. Sometimes this oral mechanism can cause hepatitis B, but it's not high on the list."
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate dietary supplements, but issues a warning to consumers: "The choice to use a dietary supplement can be a wise decision that provides health benefits. However, under certain circumstances, these products may be unnecessary for good health or they may even create unexpected risks."
"There are all kinds of health hazards that can come from abroad from folk or culinary practices that are not regulated abroad," said Schaffner.
"In our own country they wear little packets that contain garlic around the neck to ward off illness," he said. "There is a long basis of folk tradition but its' never been validated -- and there's no way anything like fetal remains could provide a health benefit."
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