Alternative Medicine: What’s the Harm?

Herbal medicine and its severe repercussions in the absence of alternative medicine curricula. 

(Photo: The show window of an herbal medicine store - Hama - 19-3-2016 [Morees Bitar/Good Morning Syria]).

“Many people now use the same prescription when feeling similar symptoms without seeing the doctor a second time, so that they can afford the drugs and spare the doctor’s fees. Meanwhile, other people use herbs and concoctions.”

div>(Hama, Syria) Herbal remedies became the talk of the town in Hama and the primary concern of its residents, as demand for medicinal herbs increased. Several factors certainly contributed to spreading this phenomenon, namely the hike in doctors’ fees and drug prices.
People working in this field are either independent researchers who studied in books about herbal medicine and visited online websites, or herbalists who inherited the profession of their fathers or grandfathers. A third type has recently surfaced as well: those seeking fast financial profit, and they can target their victims using various means.
During a visit to the new herbal medicine stores in town, Ahmad (1), a shop owner, told Good Morning Syria with utter confidence: “I’ve read several books about herbs and plants and their benefits. I follow new discoveries online on a daily basis and I give the patient the concoction only after I examine their condition. Mixing herbs doesn’t require anything but experience.”
In addition to herbal concoctions, 40-year-old Ahmad also sells food products in his shop, but he confirmed that the concoctions are more profitable than any other product.
The conversation with the shop owner was interrupted by a customer who entered the store, requesting a concoction that “strengthens the body”. Ahmad nodded immediately, realising what the customer had asked for. He mixed some powdered ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and umber, and placed the mix in a bag. “There you go! Take some of this an hour or half an hour in advance, and it’s better if you have a spoon of honey with it,” the man advised. This concoction that Ahmad came up with in less than five minutes cost 1,000 SYP (the equivalent of two dollars in the black market) – almost as much as a government employee with a monthly salary of 30,000 SYP (60 USD) spends in an entire day.
After the customer left, Ahmad clarified: “Yes, it’s a remedy to boost sexual stamina. As you just saw, it doesn’t require any education or long studies, since everyone knows that ginger and cinnamon improve sexual stamina if mixed with honey. Isn’t it better than a chemical product such as Viagra?” In Hama, a box of Viagra costs 500 SYP (one dollar), but the herbalist said his remedy equals three boxes.
Medical and natural sciences are taught at universities in Syria, but there seems to be no plan to establish an institute or faculty to teach alternative medicine, which results in the misuse of herbs.
“You can open an herbal medicine shop whenever you want, but you won’t receive the license to manufacture any of the herbal products,” said Nizar, an agricultural engineer who has been working in the field of herbal medicine for over 40 years, “we all know that medicinal plants have benefits if used well, but they can also be very dangerous; they could even cause death.”
People resort to herbal remedies without knowing the dangerous components in each plant, their quantity or their toxicity, and without considering the side effects. Dr. Mohammad, an internal medicine specialist, affirmed: “Some people currently suffer from overweight, and senna tea has become more common as a means to lose weight. However, drinking senna tea arbitrarily and in large quantities may cause severe diarrhoea which would, in turn, lead to dehydration, thus resulting in renal dysfunction.”
“A patient recently reported having high blood pressure after randomly using nutmeg leaves. She said that an herbalist had prescribed them as treatment for colitis, and recommended cappers compresses when she told him she suffered from polyarthritis. However, the compresses caused her terrible burns that haven’t healed yet,” Dr. Mohammad added.
During the crisis, many pharmaceutical companies were closed and their owners left the country due to the deteriorating security situation. Therefore, the cost of medical treatment increased and the residents of Hama had to find alternatives.
“In August 2015, the Pharmacists’ Syndicate in the city issued a circular stipulating a 50% increase in drug prices,” pharmacist Husam told Good Morning Syria, “this was an additional burden for people suffering from chronic diseases, such as heart conditions, high blood pressure and diabetes. Many people now use the same prescription when feeling similar symptoms without seeing the doctor a second time, so that they can afford the drugs and spare the doctor’s fees. Meanwhile, other people use herbs and concoctions.”
Patients look for any way to recover and many resort to herbal remedies thinking “what’s the harm?”, especially when the patient has given up on chemical treatment, which was the case of Ms. Furat, who had leukaemia. According to the pharmacist, she visited an herbal medicine shop and its owner prescribed an expensive concoction that she had to take every 20 days. Unfortunately, the woman died of her disease.
Husam traced the precedence of chemical treatments back to the history of medical sciences. “The first drugs used by man were herbal,” he explained, “when scientists found they had side effects, they tried to extract the appropriate dosages, hence semi-synthetic drugs. Then, they found that these dosages were not enough and they sought chemical formulas instead. That is when synthetic drugs appeared, putting an end to the negative effects of certain herbs and preserving only the positive ones.”
Regardless of the on-going dispute between chemical medicine and herbal treatment, establishing academic curricula for alternative medicine is now a pressing need to prevent citizens from paying for the ignorance of concoction sellers.

Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of the sources.