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Children and Herbal Supplements: A Dangerous Remedy?

For conscientious parents, the idea of treating childhood ailments with natural remedies is an appealing one, but does the fact that a product is natural automatically mean that it is safe?

For parent Janet Mandell, it all started with a cry in the night.

"She was 18 months old when she had a raging ear infection, had a really high fever, nearly 105," Mandell says. "I went to the pediatrician, and he looked at her ear and said, 'Whoa, this really needs antibiotics. '"

But Mandell was nervous about giving antibiotics to a child so young, so she decided to give Lily an herbal remedy.

"She went back to the pediatrician ten days later and he looked in her ear and said everything was fine."

She isn't alone. A recent survey found 20% of American parents are using supplements for their children's runny noses, fevers and even attention deficit disorder. And manufacturers hope to increase that number by marketing herbal combinations formulated especially for children.

"Parents are looking for something that is safer for their kids and will do a better job with their body," says Daniel Gagnon, whose company, Herbs, Etc. makes a product called Kidalin, which is sort of an herbal Ritalin.

"Parents would come in and say 'I need something to keep my kids calm,'" Gagnon explains. "So I started playing with different formulations, researching different roots, putting things together and testing it over and over until we found a formulation that was effective."

"The problem of course with most of these supplement products is that they haven't been tested in adults much less children," says Dr. Rossanne Philen, of the Centers for Disease Control. "We don't know if it's potentially beneficial or potentially very harmful. And we especially don't know that for children."

Philen fears parents may believe that because supplements come from natural products, they're safer than pharmaceuticals.

"There's a lot of natural products that we are all familiar with which are not safe. One good example is snake venom for instance. Nobody would argue poison ivory is safe," Philen says.

Unlike drug makers, supplement companies aren't required to report adverse reactions, but in 1998 alone poison control centers recorded more than 5,000 in incidents involving children under of 18. Doctors are especially concerned about the stimulant ephedra. Marketed as a way to boost energy and lose weight, ephedra has become popular with teenagers, who see it as legal speed.

"How could my healthy wonderful gorgeous son have died from something he bought in a T-shirt shop?" wonders Karen Schlendorf, whose son died in 1996 after taking ephedra.

"Pete was the 16th person that died taking these over the counter supplements containing ephedra. And our family vowed that we would do everything we could to assure that there wouldn't be a 17th. Well there was a 17th, and an 18th, and a 19th and 20th," she says.

Pete's parents have spent the lat four years fighting for laws to prevent anyone under 18 from buying ephedra products.

"There are herbal supplements that are OK, and I'm not gonna sit here and tell people that you should never take any of them," she says. "Are you willing to have your kids take the same risk?"

As matters stand now, a dietary supplement can be removed from the market only if the Food and Drug Administration can prove it is dangerous.

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