August 8, 2012
By Divya Ayyala
For someone who is pursing medicine, I sadly have to admit that my personal life has not been speckled with illness leaving me with little to no personal experience with medications. That is, until I got my wisdom teeth removed. Between the pain meds, anxiety pills, anesthesia, and saline mouthwashes, the array of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pills that I was prescribed, my daily schedule revolved around pill popping. Throughout the experience, I began to realize not only how taxing keeping track of my pill regimen was, but also how many side effects the medication actually caused. Besides physical tiredness, extreme nausea, and digestive discomfort plagued me for weeks after the surgery discouraging me from eating a full meal. For the first time, I could empathize with the patients I had seen in my clinical shadowing rotations that chose not to adhere to their medication regimens despite knowing full well the repercussions.
Before I came to Oxford for this three-week course, I thought that patients just had to deal with these side effects, no matter how uncomfortable, and take their pills. However, when this type of philosophy is extended to medications that deal with chronic diseases, this discomfort can prevent people from living their life and performing to their full economic potential. Such issues can be especially detrimental to low-income families that rely on day-to-day wages to survive. For this reason, the current healthcare systems and interventions should explore other treatment options that don’t rely primarily on synthetically manufactured drugs.
A day in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Oxford, England with herbalist Merlin Wilcox revealed such an alternative. Thousands of plants such as foxglove, rosemary, and thyme, lined picturesque ponds, paths, and hothouses, all holding medicinal uses. I was amazed how many of the herbs and flowers that were growing in my backyard at home could actually serve as substitutes for several pills that filled our family medicine cabinet. Besides the obvious accessibility of herbal remedies, other benefits of this treatment option were highlighted by two of our lectures, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Wilcox.
Both of these professors highlighted the importance of implementing alternative medical practices in conjunction with modern medicine to achieve sustainable treatment options in low income countries. Dr. Ryan’s work in rural Indian villages primarily with elephantiasis showed how yoga and locally grown herbal remedies can prove to be far more effective treatment options rather than modern medical approaches. Additionally, Dr. Wilcox discussed the effectiveness of the artemisinin plant in curing malaria in several endemic regions since it provides a level of innate immunity after treatment preventing recurring infections. Furthermore, these treatment options often have fewer side effects compared to taking the more potent and concentrated forms of the active ingredients of these plants.
Most importantly though is the fact that these alternatives are much more cost effective and therefore more sustainable. Instead of patients relying on imported medicines to sustain their treatment options, it is much more beneficial for communities to actually begin to grow these medicinal plants and learn how to manufacture already known treatments in a low cost manner. This will eliminate dependence on NGOs and other aid organizations that rely heavily on independent donations to fund medication supply and delivery thus making them reliant on economic fluctuations thereby creating an unreliable and spotty supply chain for these low-income communities.
Without these lectures, I would have begun my medical career without appreciating the strength and power of plants and ancient wisdom. Who would have thought learning to eat your greens might be the key to actually delivering effective healthcare to low-income countries?
Divya will be a senior this fall pursuing a double major in Biology and Global Health. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo: Divya Ayyala and Jeremy Huang in Oxford’s Botanical Garden. Photo by Gabby Yee.