ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation estimates, nearly 300 million people around the world suffer from asthma, with nearly 10 per cent of the global population diagnosed with this lifelong respiratory disease. In the United States, around 70 per cent of asthmatics also have allergies to pollen and certain foods, especially dairy, with the annual economic cost of asthma reaching $US20 billion ($FJ35.7bn) in medical and indirect costs, with prescription drugs representing the largest single direct medical expenditure at $US6bn ($FJ10.7bn).
Every year, nearly 250,000 people die from asthma related complications, and Fiji is not insulated from this global epidemic. There is no known medical cure for asthma, with asthmatics enduring a continuous management regime of steroids, inhalers and nebulisers to help reduce its symptoms.
But an 11-year old Australian boy begs to differ with medical science, and claims that a traditional Fijian remedy for asthma has cured him, with no relapse for the past 12 months since he underwent an incredibly moving and traditional Fijian ritual.
At the age of five, Tanner Blessington from Sydney's north shore in Australia contracted the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at the start of winter and ended up being hospitalised and treated with intravenous fluids and ventolin immediately. RSV is a major cause of respiratory illness across all ages in nearly every country, but school-aged children are particularly susceptible during colder months as colds and flu spread and place their immune systems under enormous pressure. RSV was first discovered in 1956 and since been recognised by the medical profession as one of the most common causes of childhood illnesses.
The Blessington family visit Fiji every year for holidays but on one visit they learnt from a Fijian working at one of the resorts that his mother claimed to have the gift to cure asthma. Tanner's mother, Leanne, just shrugged the comment off as a Fijian myth but remained curious for another two years, when by a second chance meeting, she met the same man.
Still curious but acutely aware that it might just be a scam for money, she decided to take the next step and meet this mysterious mother. In pouring rain, the Blessington's took a taxi to the local village to meet the man's wife and three children. His elderly mother came straight up to Tanner and said she had a dream that he was coming to see her. After a few hours of pleasantries, Leanne and husband Adrian were asked to leave the room, so that the elderly women could concentrate on helping young Tanner.
With night approaching and still raining, the men of the family went to climb a nuidamu coconut tree to retrieve an orange-red coconut, and to get a medicinal tree root. Without any safety equipment, one of the men climbed a tall palm tree, carefully removed a few coconuts, tied a rope around each bundle and gently lowered them to the ground. Nuidamu coconuts are highly respected in traditional medicine and the utmost care was taken not to let them hit the ground.
Returning to the house, the older woman began shaving the skin of the root over newspaper, like peeling cassava root. The shavings were then bundled up inside the stringy, vau bark of the coconut tree to form a bundle, and immersed into the coconut water to let it infuse and absorb. In the meantime, as the family continued to pray and chant, she ran her finger across Tanner's hand and up the underside of his arm and said to him, "this will not work if you don't have love inside you".
All negativity and stress had to go from his mind, as well as his parents who were sitting nearby. This was especially difficult for his parents, as they had just heard that their Sydney home had been robbed and most of their jewellery and possessions had been stolen whilst they were in Fiji. Leanne tells of the hardship to rid herself of stress but she was determined to do everything right to make this work for her son.
Once the bark and shaved roots had absorbed most of the coconut water, they were hand-squeezed to extract the essential oils and tree sap back into a bowl. Like mixing yaqona, she made sure that every last drop of liquid was removed, leaving only the dry bark and root in a bundle, which she put to one side. Tanner had his first drink of the herbal water and said it didn't taste as bad as Western medicine. After more ceremony and prayer, Tanner had one final ritual to perform. He had to swim out to the deepest point in the sea and throw the dry bark bundle as far as he could and say "goodbye to my asthma". He was told that he had to drink the rest of the mixture, with top ups of more nuidamu coconut water, for the next seven days. He couldn't drink any other liquids including water, juice or the gravy from his favourite curries ù only the coconut medicine that had been made. This was probably because it may have diluted the potency of the herbal drink, ensuring the traditional medicine could do its job. Leanne was still skeptical, but there was no money exchanged and the old woman simply asked that they had faith and put their hearts and minds to believing the treatment would work.
On day eight, Tanner mustered up the courage to put the treatment to the ultimate test. With his inhaler at the ready, he ordered the biggest ice cream sundae. To everyone's surprise, there was no reaction. No wheezing, no constricted airway, his asthma had miraculously disappeared. For the next 12 months, Leanne held her breath, constantly monitoring her son's condition back home in Australia, unsure if and when his asthma may return. It didn't. On their return to Fiji just recently, Tanner fulfilled one his biggest dreams that his previous condition had prevented him doing. He learned to scuba dive.
"On the dive application form, it asked if I had any medical condition. I ticked no. I used to have asthma but it is now out there at sea" said young Tanner.
In the book, Secrets of Fijian Medicine, Dr Michael Weiner, a professor at the University of California in the United States, spent several years in Fiji during the 1980s working with the government and the United Nations Development Programme to document Fiji's ancient herbal remedies. In it, Tanner's treatment is documented and well known to many Fijian elders. Tree roots used to treat asthma include vesi (intsia bijuga) and vadra aerial roots (pandanus) and both are commonly found throughout parts of South East Asia and the Pacific Islands.
The sacred orange-red coconuts are also listed in his book. Native to Asia and Polynesia, the niudamu tall palm tree grows to a height of 100 feet and bears mainly yellow and orange-red coloured coconuts. Belonging to the cocos nucifera L. family, this unique tree is known in Fijian medicine to also cure a number of ailments like fish poisoning, infected sores, scabies and is used as a general antibacterial agent. Studies of coconut oil around the world reveals that pure virgin coconut oil, cold-pressed and not heat-treated like that processed in Fiji's copra mills, is very high in antioxidants that are beginning to be recognised around the world to help stop brain degeneration and life threatening bacterial and viral diseases. MCT's (middle chain triglycerides) are in high concentration in virgin coconut oils containing 60 per cent of the good antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties of any known oil.
Lauric acid is also naturally occurring in coconut, and like breast milk, acts as an antibacterial and antiviral to both kill germs and nourish the cells. Our modern day diet, especially in Western cultures, lacks MCT, which was always mostly found in coconut oil and now you will find it lacking or nonexistent in most cooking oils you use today.
One of today's characteristic health problems is high cholesterol mostly in the form of LDLs (low density lipoproteins), with low HDLs (high density lipoproteins), and high triglycerides. What's interesting about coconut oil is it increases HDL, reduces LDL, and reduces the triglycerides all at once. MCT oil is also being used in a number of applications in the US for treatment of a range of viral diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, asthma, eczema and HIV, as it is believed this ancient medicine in a coconut is one of nature's gifts of a highly effective, non-toxic remedy to kill modern day viruses and bacteria in the body.
So does Fijian traditional medicine hold the clues and secrets to curing asthma and other modern diseases? Medical science says no, but for one young Australian boy, the "Tree of Life" takes on a whole new meaning.
* Traditional medicines should not replace the advice of a trained physician and at all times, consult a professional doctor for treatment. This information is not medical advice. Lance Seeto is a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and is based at Castaway Island.