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The case for herbal medicines

Shihab Sarkar | Published: November 21, 2019 20:56:42


In the highly industrialised regions of the world, most of the people are said to be hypochondriac. Their obsession with health, sickness and medicinal remedies is sharply at variance with the people in less developed Asian, African and many other countries. Not long ago, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of herbal and homeopathy medicines at pharmacies. The authorities view the medicines as fake, and ineffective, like placebos. Both the herbal and homeopathy medicines have been having their worldwide use for centuries. In fact, the prehistoric Homo sapiens-sapiens predating the earliest mankind used to be dependent on herbs, plants and trees upon being stricken by a disease. Animals like chimpanzees and gorillas also go on the hunt for certain wild leaves after they are stricken by diseases. During the peaks of major civilisations, herbal cures and the process of treatment underwent phases of remarkable change.

In remote and isolated human settlements, the medication procedures accompany traditional rites which might appear to be abhorrent to the 'civilised' people today. Those include magic sessions, the patients' passing into a spell of trance and weirdly rhythmic movements resorted to by shamans. On the Caribbean islands like Haiti, voodoo sittings are integral parts of the treatment sessions. Similar healing rituals are practised in the deep recesses of forests inhabited by primitive societies. The herbal medicinal practitioners consider the rituals as essential. To many, the formalities that accompany these treatment sessions are considered as ploys to impress people. The essence, however, lies with the medicines and their curative power, which has been found true for centuries. To the utter amazement of lots of disbelievers of herbal treatment, with an overly scientific bent of mind, the herbal medicines, in reality, work in lots of ailments. It is these medicinal properties that prompted certain animals and the later Stone Age humans to frenziedly rummage through the jungles. Their goal was to find a certain curative plant or tree leaf.       

The long human history up to the late 20th century witnessed a potently positive attitude towards herbal medicines and their practitioners. Homeopathy is still widely used in Europe and Asia. Against this backdrop, the planet Earth has been changing fast for over three to four decades. Along the process of these changes, new therapeutic inventions --- as well as hitherto unknown maladies, continue to have their impacts on the world populations. To speak in short, with man around a decade away from setting foot on Mars, and cancer and AIDS cures almost within human reach, many depressing news keeps coming from the health and medicine fronts. In a number of regions of the world, long dormant diseases are reemerging, while outbreak of strange diseases has started afflicting the other regions. Keeping this segment of life in view, medicines and their efficacy deserve to be placed in a wider focus. To the dismay of many, depressing news reports keep pouring in. The most alarming of them is the one that tells of many diseases which are fast becoming resistant to antibiotics. Man has been taking or using the earliest form of antibiotic --- penicillin, since its invention 91 years ago. Antibiotic medicines were once considered a sure cure for many illnesses. Doctors in most of the countries are still dependent on this group of medicines for diseases that do not heal with conventional drugs. But after almost a century of indiscriminate use, antibiotic medicines have started proving ineffective. Meanwhile, some viruses have been found getting invincibly stronger than the antibiotic drugs. As a result, the medicines are emerging weaker than normally expected. Owing to their inefficacies, antibiotic drugs are being viewed in many parts of the world as mere placebos. Instead of curing a person, use of antibiotics and many other strong medicines is allegedly leading to health complications.

The ongoing quest for an alternative to antibiotics in such a precarious situation is part of a normal course of evolution of drugs. This is nothing unusual and necessitated by desperation. Industrialised countries and those belonging to the fast developing group have put in their utmost efforts to invent a 'new type of drugs' which can work more potently than antibiotics. These drugs are expected to contain newly invented ingredients effective in weakening the ferocity of viruses. However the endeavour is in a trial process. These new-generation medicines are still at the laboratory stage.

In the meantime, viral diseases haven't stopped ravaging vast swathes of many countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Apart from modern-day medicinal interventions, lots of these countries through the ages have armed themselves with improvised drugs derived from medicinal plants. Bangladesh and the other countries in the southern Asia have been dependent on herbal cures comprising medicinal plants since ancient times. Thanks to the Bangladesh soil being highly fertile and largely swampy, it's ideal for the growth of different types of medicinal plants. Of late, enterprising people in the country are found cultivating Tulsi, Basok, Akondo, Ghritakumari and other plants commercially on large tracts of land. After harvests, the growers sell the medicinal herbs to companies manufacturing indigenous drugs in the forms of pills and syrups. Of late, a considerably large section of the medicinal plant sector is occupied by farmers in the hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The soil in the area is different from that of the country's mainland. Geoscientists have detected a similarity of the soil with that of the Sub-continent's northeastern region. This area grows medicinal plants having similarity with those grown the in the Sino-Tibetan belt. China was globally recognised in the ancient times as one of the birthplaces of wondrous herbal treatment.

Though not patronised as before, Bangladesh has lately begun taking humble attempts to revive the glorious past of the production of its medicinal plants. Local administrations are extending their utmost cooperation to villagers in growing medicinal plants. They have allowed interested farmers to use government-owned fallow lands and roadside spaces to cultivate these plants. In cultivating the field-based herbal crops, a farmer doesn't require to use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Farmers at Gaibandha villages have been growing 'Tulsi', a remedy for a lot of different ailments, and 'Basok', another herbal plant, for a few years. They grow the plants alongside the main crops. Most of the growers are happy with their 'Tulsi' cultivation, as the crop fetches handsome profits for them. Besides 'Tulsi' and 'Basok', farmers in the country's other areas grow orchards of 'Shefali, 'Parijat', 'Rongon' and 'Madhabi Lata', originally flowers and creepers, 'Shatamooli'  'Kurchi', 'Potari', 'Kantakui' and many other plants and small trees as raw materials for herbal medicines. An amazing aspect of these medicines is every part of a plant or tree is used for making a medicine. They range from the leaves, flowers, outer and inner bark of trees, roots to fruits and the pastes and powders made of these components. Around two thousand of medicinal plants have been located in the Sub-continent.

A survey has found that 25 per cent of all prescribed medicines originate from plant sources. It adds that herbal medicines are used by about 75-80 per cent of the world's population for primary healthcare. This is prompted by their better cultural intimacy, better physical compatibility and lesser side-effects. Bangladesh has more than 500 medicinal plant species. They have proven reach in diversified genetic resources and are found in a vast range of habitats. Earlier, individual herbal doctors used to dominate the sector. In the face of growing popularity of allopathic medicines, these traditional healers have long been on the verge disappearance. In their place, mass-production units of herbal medicines have continued to emerge. At present, 297 Unani and 204 Ayurvedic drug industries are engaged in manufacturing medicines.

In countries with long tradition of growing medicinal plants, herbal drugs are still used alongside latest allopathic medicines. Apart from the relentless advocates of herbal medicines, scores of 'rational' people show their weaknesses for these native drugs. In fact, they create an ineffable appeal among the users. This is irresistible and there is logic. Herbal medicines are far from being able to resist the progresses of cancers or other still incurable diseases. But they can wondrously cure many painful ailments.

shihabskr@ymail.com

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