July 26, 2011
by Kelli Thompson
Today I felt a bit like I woke up to find myself in wizardry school here at Oxford, majoring in potions, of course. And although I woke up, as if by magic, at the perfect time this morning even though I forgot to set my alarm clock last night, I know this is not a dream, and not Hogwarts. I learned practical information on medicine today, not wizardry, even if the lecturer’s first name was Merlin.
One of the lectures was on herbal and traditional medicines, the brews and mixtures often thought of by westerners as false medicine or some attempt at magical healing, and the things I learned were nothing short of enlightening. I simply cannot stop thinking about the things that were said today, and the lack of credit that I have ever considered giving plants as legitimate medicinal sources.
When it comes down to it, most medicines have roots (pun somewhat intended) in common plants: Aspirin, for example can be found in the bark of a white willow, purple foxglove is a plant whose extracts are found in treatment for atrial fibrillation, and Catharanthus roseus is the source of drugs that have dramatically improved survival rates of children with leukemia. But, that is only the tip of the iceberg, or as they apparently say in Africa “the ears of the hippopotamus.”
Our lecture started in the Green College garden, one of the 40 college gardens at Oxford University, where Dr. Willcox gave the class a tour, pointing out a plethora of plants and their medicinal purposes, including the ones I mentioned. Some I had heard of before, like the Ginko tree’s benefits for decreasing cognitive impairment and dementia. Others were surprising, like the use of hops, those things you sometimes see on beer commercials, dried and placed in a pillow to help with insomnia, or the use of Artemisia plant extracts for some of the latest anti-malarial drugs to hit the market.
Back in the classroom, a lot of interesting points were made about traditional medicine and its possible place in the future of health care, especially within developing countries. As it is, 80 percent of people rely on traditional medicine for their primary form of healthcare, and there a number of reasons why including lack of access to modern healthcare institutions, the cost of modern treatment, cultural values and traditions, and lack of trust or understanding of hospital practices.
At first I couldn’t help but think what a shame it is that these people are missing out on the most advanced care and the best treatments, but I am no longer convinced that is necessarily the case. Traditional medicine is often a first choice for people because it is available, affordable, trusted, and traditionally safe. On the other hand, in many developing countries modern healthcare does not have that reputation, and some studies there have been better recovery rates observed for those using traditional over modern medical practices to treat diseases like malaria. In fact, the most common reason that people choose herbal medicine is because of perceived effectiveness.
The current trend is to push traditional healers to refer people to the hospitals, but there are some problems with this system. If the small, already overcrowded hospitals giving less than effective care had to suddenly take on every medical case within their widespread domain, they would simply run out of room. This lack of capacity is a major barrier to the current referral process. Referral to a hospital in often unnecessary if the herbal and traditional treatments are working, and a better system of understanding and education between doctors that work in hospitals and the traditional healers in villages is definitely something that needs to be worked on.
We were given the chance to sample the tea used to treat malaria, and it was far from tasty. The Artemisia tea was one of the bitterest things I have ever tasted…although I am sure that if I was faced with the choice of dying from severe malarial complications and drinking a liter of bitter tea I would much rather suffer through the taste.
At the end of the day, I am no longer entirely sure that embracing the benefits of traditional medicine in rural villages is such a bad idea. I do believe that the technology and advancements that have been made in modern medicine are both exceptional and necessary to save lives, but there also must be a reason that traditional healing practices have lasted within these communities for so long. Like Merlin said, the absence of indisputable evidence is not evidence of ineffectiveness. Ultimately, there really needs to be a perspective change in which we become more open to exploring and understanding alternative medicine systems before writing them off as impractical.
Kelli Thompson is a junior neuroscience major in USC Dornsife.