Local cures
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 29, 2014 - 12:00am

’Tis the season for binge eating, and also – as health experts warned – for getting sick. All those rich foods can lead to high blood pressure and stroke or heart attack, elevated blood sugar and numerous other afflictions from pigging out.

Holiday partying, drinking and lack of sleep, combined with the recent drop in temperatures, are also causing colds, whooping cough and fever. The approach of the New Year means worse air pollution, which can cause allergic rhinitis, skin rashes and conjunctivitis.

Treatments are readily available. But for millions of Filipinos, even over-the-counter generic drugs for common afflictions are a luxury they can’t afford.

Instead they turn to their villages’ medicinal lore: Philippine oregano for colds, unripe guava for amoebiasis and ordinary diarrhea.

With so many people swearing by the efficacy of folk medicine, there must be something to it. Some Spaniards, during the colonial period, documented indigenous plants with healing properties. During the American occupation, a research and development center studied Philippine plants for medicinal properties and other possible uses.

As Big Pharma will tell you, developing a single cure, from the start of R&D to the numerous tests until its approval for commercial release, can cost about $600 million. Only the multinationals, national governments and Bill and Melinda Gates have that kind of money to spend on R&D.

But surely R&D support, on a lower scale, is possible for our country to develop a local pharmaceutical industry that can compete with India.

We’re buying generics from India, and no wonder – that country has long regarded the pharmaceutical industry as an engine of economic growth, providing meaningful jobs and making health care accessible to its people.

While Big Pharma frowns on the start of the Indian pharmaceutical industry, which went around global patent regulations, the Indian industry has become the world’s third largest in terms of volume, earning billions of dollars annually for that country.

Because of government incentives, even small and medium enterprises are into pharmaceutical manufacturing in India. They’re ahead of us in this department by about four decades, but we can try catching up.

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Being familiar with our own flora, we can have an edge over foreign pharmaceutical companies in R&D. And we may be able to develop cures for tropical illnesses faster.

If dengue afflicted people in the temperate zones, for example, a vaccine might have been developed decades ago. Sanofi-Pasteur has developed a dengue vaccine, but its targeted 2015 rollout is still fraught with complications.

These days the multinationals are rushing to produce a vaccine for Ebola as the killer disease threatens to become a global pandemic.

Our rich biodiversity offers immense possibilities for medicine. One example: a woman who visited her family last month in a typhoon-hit village in the Visayas returned to Manila with a burning itch in her upper arm. She suspected that she got a viral infection from bathing in water drawn from a communal well.

A friend whose mother moonlights as a village herbalist in another province advised the woman to gather a few malunggay leaves, pound them into a paste and apply it on the itchiest part, which was raw from too much scratching. The woman did, and felt instant relief.

She also followed the advice to wash the infected arm regularly with water in which malunggay leaves have been steeped. The itchiness disappeared in a few days.

Malunggay or moringa oleifera, indigenous to northwestern India, is now widely used here, in dried or powdered form, as an ingredient in food products including bread and biscuits. Water infused with malunggay has long been used in rural areas as a substitute for infant milk. Mothers eat the leaves or sip soup with malunggay to increase lactation. Recently, health officials said it could increase sperm production.

But its other uses are still little known. The woman’s friend learned that moringa is effective for itching and healing wounds after seeing another woman use malunggay paste on a pet dog that had also scratched an itchy part raw. The paste must’ve stung because the dog whimpered as it was applied, but the raw area healed rapidly and the fur grew back quickly.

With sufficient state support or endowments from the private sector, malunggay can be developed into an affordable external antiseptic. And we have, for sure, several other plant species that can be used for biopharmaceuticals.

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Indians have been using various parts of the neem tree, now widely propagated here, as a mosquito repellent, antiseptic and ingredient in soap and beauty products. They use it against termites and cockroaches. Its leaves, used as tea, are believed to be good for afflictions including hypertension and high blood sugar.

These are still little known here. But Pinoy diabetics swear by the efficacy of ampalaya or bitter gourd – both the fruit and leaves – in maintaining a healthy blood sugar level.

People familiar with folk medicine in their villages have long known about the properties of madre de cacao or kakawate. Local manufacturers at least have tapped this plant – not particularly attractive and regarded as a weed in urban areas – for producing dog soap for use specifically against fleas and skin infections.

Filipino men also know that guava leaves, pounded into a pulp, speed up the healing of the newly circumcised.

The world is just starting to discover the healthful properties of virgin coconut oil.

Local tea and wine makers are now selling products made from banaba (for kidney ailments), duhat (for diabetes), sambong or Blumea camphor (for kidney stones) and lagundi – long used for easing fever, coughs and colds.

During rainy days there is an abundance of pansit-pansitan (Peperomia pellucida), which people with gout gather and steep with pandan leaves to make tea.

These days mangosteen and guyabano are being sold in pureed form or as tea. With sufficient R&D support, their purported anti-cancer properties can be backed by something more than anecdotal evidence.

The Department of Health has endorsed 10 medicinal herbs under its Traditional Health Program. These are ampalaya, guava, lagundi, sambong, pansit-pansitan, akapulko for ringworm and eczema, garlic for its anti-cancer and anti-hypertensive properties, niyog-niyogan or Chinese honeysuckle for eliminating intestinal parasites, tsaang gubat or wild tea for skin afflictions, and yerba buena or peppermint as an analgesic and for insect bites.

There must be over a thousand other Philippine plants out there, just waiting to be developed for public health.


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