A FRIEND of mine recently sent me the following post on Facebook, which I found both amusing and thought-provoking:
2000 BC — Here, eat this root.
1000 AD — That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 AD — That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 AD — That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 AD — That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2000 AD — That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root
It seems to have taken four thousand years for the value of traditional medicine to go from being the only available medicine, to being rejected as superstitious, old wives tales in the face of development, to finally become accepted by mainstream medicine as well as becoming a profitable commodity.
While I may object to the taste of layalaya, I am a fan of its cleansing effect on the body. Kava has some beneficial effects, which make it a popular herbal medicine in America and Europe, although perhaps its effect in Fiji is the opposite. I remember a taxidriver once extolling the virtues of wa bosucu "just-a-minute", referring to the "mile-a-minute" vine for use on cuts and scrapes. Young mango or guava leaves for an upset stomach and vasili for filariasis or boils add to the very long list of traditional medicine that most of us are familiar with as home remedies.
But to what extent is traditional medicine recognised beyond "folk medicine" and how is it accepted in Fiji?
This question came to mind when I recently came back home, on break from studies in Korea, and went with the family to the supermarket. I searched in vain to find toothpaste that did not contain fluoride as I prefer the herbal alternative of clove oil based toothpaste. I still recall my regular sessions as a child, with my father, a toothbrush made out of hibiscus branch and paste made of charcoal.
Ancient toothpastes included ingredients such as ox hoof ashes, burnt eggshells, crushed bones, oyster shells, powdered charcoal and bark. Modern ingredients aren't quite as poetic. What are we using to keep our pearly whites their healthiest today?
A simple perusal of the ingredients list of a tube of commercial toothpaste can yield a laundry list of chemicals, additives, detergents and (shock!) sweeteners. Typical toothpastes can contain some harsh abrasives and chemicals. Among the worst ingredients to watch out for — propylene glycol — a solvent that is the active component in some anti-freezes, and is used in everything from makeup to mouthwash. Fluoride is also a questionable ingredient for some - it's used in commercial toothpastes to strengthen enamel, and many dentists recommend using a fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride is considered toxic when ingested in high levels and is a controversial additive in water. Accidentally ingesting high quantities of toothpaste — as children sometimes do — can be potentially toxic.
(Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/living-green/natural-toothpaste-ingredients-0307#ixzz27P81AWqX, http://health.wikinut.com/What-s-In-Toothpaste/2g5i7vmb/ or http://www.organicconsumers.org/Toxic/flouride.cfm)
The World Health Organisation (WHO) realised in 1978 the role of traditional, alternative and complementary systems of medicine in the healthcare sectors of both developing and the developed nations with the slogan of "Health for All". Later, this issue was globally addressed by the Traditional Medicine Program of WHO on several perspectives ranging from cultivation of herbs, manufacturing, dispensing, to preparation of guidelines for common masses in traditional medicine.
According to the WHO, "Traditional medicine is the knowledge, skills and practices of holistic healthcare, recognised and accepted for its role in the maintenance of health and the treatment of diseases. It is based on indigenous theories, beliefs and experiences that are passed on from generation to generation".
Ayurveda, the holistic science of medicine, as practised and utilised by Indians at large since centuries, is getting global at present by virtue of its qualitative strength, essential elements of health and important clues for consistent functioning of life. Ayurveda is basically more oriented toward the management of lifestyle disorders which are in prominence because of stress-related phenomena and some other reasons among certain age groups in the society. Worldwide recognition of academic courses in Ayurveda is an additional accreditation of the establishment of wellness centres in general and its therapeutics value as a system of medicine in particular.
A global review of Legal Status of Traditional Medicine and Complementary/ Alternative Medicine by WHO in 2001 found that Fiji, despite a Cabinet directive in 2000 to establish a national policy on traditional medicine, no great importance is attached to formal education in either traditional medicine or complementary/alternative medicine at universities or medical schools, although some training is done through primary health care.
The report adds that the Women's Association for Natural Medicinal Therapy, a non-governmental organisation promoting traditional medicine, has begun a survey of over 2000 practising providers of traditional medicine in 13 of the 14 provinces in Fiji. In two of these provinces, the surveys have been completed. These surveys and conversations with local people indicate great faith in allopathic medicine even though villagers may find traditional medicine to be more effective and cost efficient. The surveys further suggest that many people, including practitioners of allopathic medicine, use traditional medicine but hesitate to call it such because traditional medicine is associated with witchcraft.
Between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the population use traditional medicine .According to Fiji's Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the average Fijian household uses $US200 ($F354) worth of medicinal plants annually. If these traditional medicines were replaced by allopathic medicines, this would amount to a total of $US75 million ($F133m) annually.
I'm no expert in traditional medicine, or any medicine. In fact I'm often known to rely on a "stopache and prayer" for most of my ailments, although I am no stranger to the free government healthcare provisions at the Samabula Health Centre.
However, it seems a shame when global trends which promote western-approved synthesised medicine (however cheap they may be these days thanks to new pharmaceutical legislation) are given prominence over readily-available local (and often free) or imported traditional medicine.
Perhaps we still haven't reached the "That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root," stage. I hold the hope we will.
Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church and is a weekly columnist with The Fiji Times. The views expressed are his and not that of this newspaper.