Tapping the potential of herbal medicine

Shihab Sarkar | Published: March 30, 2017 21:27:07 | Updated: October 22, 2017 05:39:27

Recent discoveries of some remains of Neanderthals have led scientists to draw a unanimous conclusion. They now believe the use of medicinal plants was widespread among the long-extinct but closest relative of prehistoric man. A find shows the traces of certain shrubs, later used as cure for stomach pain, in the teeth of a fossilised Neanderthal youth. Down the passage of civilisations, people in the sub-continent one day chanced upon the healing powers of herbs. Shamans and sages in ancient Bengal and Bihar did not lag much behind. Scores of plant-based medicines originated in this region.  
With the fast depletion of forests in today's Bangladesh, the country has also long been losing its vast prospects for producing herbal medicines. The country has a highly fertile land, unlike many others in the region. This fact has thus made it an area known as home to hundreds of types of plants and trees. A vast swathe of the land lies at the foot of the Himalayas, the mountain range that has made a few South Asian countries rich in herbal medicines.
Many would like to term the treatment Bangladesh has meted out to its once abundant ethno-medicinal plants sheer mindless. Even a few decades ago, the country's herbal medicine sector was a thriving one. Unlike homeopathy, the herbal medicines did not have to face any dearth of their supporters among the physicians and pharmacists. For plants comprise a major ingredient of allopathic medicines. Besides, herbal medicines themselves have traditionally been defined as a unique branch of drugs. However, like many other traditional resources and ways of life, the use of these medicines also eventually waned. Apart from the alarming shrinkage of the country's forest coverage, production malpractices resorted to by a section of people manufacturing the drugs on large scale dealt a severe blow to the sector. Moreover, in the face of stiff competition from the much-effective and easily affordable allopathic drugs, the herbal healers began facing difficult times. Locally called 'Kabiraj', many of these indigenous physicians have abandoned their ancestral profession.
However, it is not the complete story about the herbal medicine scenario in the country. To a sizeable number of the educated people, these alternative medicines hold great promise due to their being hazard-free. The government has lately begun focusing on the remarkably high export potential of the country's herbal medicines.
At present, its largely thinned out forests of the country comprise 6,500 species of plants. Of them, a total of 650 contain medicinal properties. They, however, mostly remain underutilised.  On the other hand, the pharmaceutical companies in the country, who use medicinal plants for some drugs, normally import these raw materials. Large quantities of herbal plants are imported from our South Asian neighbours.
Of late, a lot of interest and enthusiasm has been generated by the Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary in Cox's Bazar in the country. With the goal of restoration and conservation of the forest, the venture is now engaged in community-based programmes to help grow plants with therapeutic values.
Bangladesh has a thousand-year-old tradition of practice in herbal medicine. Like many other ancient studies, the one dealing with cure by ethno-medicinal plants enjoyed a place of glory in the distant past. Called Ayurveda, the discipline used to cover a vast range of ailments and their gamut of cures. Popularly called 'Boidyas' or 'Kabirajes', the practitioners of this ancient style of treatment once belonged to highly revered sections in society. Centuries later in the Mughal era, Aurveda treatment ran parallel to the Perso-Arabic medical practice called Eunani. It also dependents on plants for its chief ingredients.
With the entry of the cheaper and quick-remedy allopathic medicines during the British colonial rule, the plant-based medicines began losing their mass appeal. Moreover, at one point of time therapeutically enriched shrubs and trees began undergoing the process of extinction. Expansion of human and commercial settlements, coupled with clearing of forests and undergrowths, expedited the fall of these two ethno-medicinal traditions of curing diseases.
Bengalees are among the nations that nurture a deep love for their past heritage. In accordance with this national trait, the 'Kabirajes' still enjoy a distinctive place in rural societies. Even in many semi-urban areas, people, in the cases of complicated cases, look for a genuine 'Kabiraj' alongside taking medications from a modern doctor. The scene is not much different in many Western countries. A study conducted on US cure-seekers has found a large segment of them prefer homeopathy medicines to allopathic therapies. Lately, the drug administration of that country prohibited wide-scale sale of homeopathy medicines, terming them placebos with little effectuality. The US authorities consider homeopathy to be a variant form of herbal medicinal practice.
In the roaring days of allopathic cures the number of 'Kabirajes', 8,000 approximately, across the country is indeed baffling. All this might emerge as a proof of this nation's tradition-bound predisposition. When it comes to 'Aurveda' or 'Unani' medications, a subtle element of homegrown spirituality is also found at play. In spite of the pervasive presence of allopathic cures, 'alternative treatments' enjoy a significant acceptability in this society.
Side by side with inventing newer pharmaceutical cures, today's medical science continues to delve into the untapped potential of medicinal herbs. People's interest in them only continues to rise. Being a deltaic land gifted with abundant plant resources, Bangladesh can eye a large chunk of the overseas herbal medicine market. Frittering away the export potential of these unique medicines assumes the proportions of unforgivable indifference. There are few areas in the country's national life that have this wonderful combination of ancient wisdom, modern technology and social patronage. The herbal medicines sector of the country warrants a multi-pronged focus.


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