Unlike allopathic medicines, Ayurvedic products are not clinically tested before they are introduced in the market. This raises doubts about their effectiveness
in india, herbal medicines worth Rs 900 crore are produced annually while the revenue earned through their yearly export has risen to Rs 120 crore. Despite this there is no check to ensure that only genuine medicines make it to the shelves. Even the drug controller of India, P Sengupta, says his office acts only on specific complaints.
"We urgently need to have a regulatory body if we are to utilise our traditional knowledge of Ayurveda in an effective manner, without losing credibility," says Ranjit Roy Chaudhury, chairman, scientific advisory committee on traditional medicine, Indian Council of Medical Research ( icmr ).
Owing to the absence of any regulation -- for instance, an expert body declaring the traditional drugs and injectables to be below prescribed standards under the Drugs and Narcotics Act, 1940 -- companies are simply collecting the plants, making a preparation and marketing it.
The Indian System, of Medicine ( ism ) includes Ayurveda, omoeopathy, Unani, and Siddha. While traditional medicine hospitals account for 1,690 hospitals in India, there are at least 13,770 dispensaries of traditional medicine.
According to the office of the Drug Controller of India, there were 7,843 licensed pharmacies manufacturing drugs used in the ism and 857 licensed pharmacies manufacturing homoeopathic medicines, in 1991. In addition, a number of small scale and unlicensed enterprises operated in the small scale sector.
The working group on Indian Systems of Medicine and Homoeopathy ( ism and h ) brings together policymakers from various ministries and departments dealing with traditional medicine and medicinal plants. For the Ninth Five Year Plan, the group sought an outlay of Rs 1,840 crore. A considerable proportion of this has been recommended for developing some standards and ensuring that quality is maintained.
Over 7,000 plants are known to be used for medicinal purposes. In addition to domestic consumption, India is a major exporter. Three-fourths of the plant-based drugs are found in the natural state in India. Over 7,000 licensed manufacturers supply 55,000 pharmacies and 14,000 herbal dispensaries with plant based products. The herbal medicine industry generates over 200 million days of employment annually, according to rough estimates.
The industry gets its raw material from traders, who subcontract collectors in the rural areas to provide them the plant material. Due to this method of obtaining raw materials, it is easy to adulterate the products.
Plants, a major source of therapeutic medicine, are used in allopathic as well as traditional medicines. However, in the absence of quality control measures one is not sure whether one is indeed consuming the unadulterated herbal preparation as mentioned on the container, or the relief is due just to a placebo effect.
While making an herbal preparation, the development of the plant is important. This is because the quality of the active ingredients responsible for the therapeutic activity is affected by different environmental parameters, the time of harvest, and duration of storage.
"The importance of these factors has been laid down in ayurvedic literature and cannot be ignored," says A K S Rawat, scientist at the National Botanical Research Institute ( nbri ), Lucknow. "For instance, the liver protective action of the active chemical from the punarava plant root ( Boerhaavia diffusa ) is highest among the plants collected in May, when the plant is under acute stress. The amount of picroliv, the active chemical of another liver protective drug used for the treatment of hepatitis b from the plant Picrorhiza kurrooa decreases with storage. The amount of alkaloids, the active chemicals from the plant Coscinium fenestratum used in fevers and as a tonic, varies with the location where it is grown," he adds.
A number of plant parts such as stems, roots and leaves that resemble the medicinal plant parts are being sold as genuine herbs. Companies buy the substitutes since their cost is low. "When we went to the market to purchase Saracca asoca, the real source of Asoka that goes into the preparation of Asokarishta, used for treating menstrual disorders, we were offered a choice between a substitute at the cost of Rs 20 per kilogram and the genuine herb costing Rs 200 per kilogram. You can well imagine what a small company with no checks on quality or specifications will choose," says S Mehrotra, nbri scientist, who has been working on standardisation of herbal medicine preparations.
The nbri has developed protocols whereby at least some of the ingredients of herbal drugs can be identified even in the powdered form. For instance, the leaves of Taccus baccata subspecies wallichiana , a plant found in the Himalaya are very similar to the Abies spectabilis . The chemical constituents are, however, totally different. While the former contains taxol, a drug used in the treatment of cancers, the latter contains an alkaloid used in the treatment of cough and cold, loss of appetite (anorexia), constipation, and nausea.
Cheaper substitutes are often sold geniune herbs
|Actual plant||Active principle||Trade name||Used for/as||Substituted by|
|Bacopa monnieri (real brahmi)||Boccasides||Brahmi||Memory enhancing drug||Centella asiatica and Merremia Merginata|
|Saraca asca||Glycosides||Asok||Menstrual disorders||Polyalthia longifolia, Shoria robusta|
|Acontium heterophyllum||Alkaloides||Atis||Gripe water,fevers diarrhoes and dysentry||Chaerophyllum villosum|
|Inula Racemosa||Terpense inessential oil||Puskarmula||Diarrhoes, prevention of miscarriage||Saussurea costus|
|Polygonatum verticillatum||Glucoside||Meda||In tonics and immuno modulators like chyavanprash||Polygonatum cirrhifolium|
|Bergenia cilliata||Pashanbheda||Kidney stones||Colecus aromaticus|
|Taxus baccata||Taxol||Talishpatra||Anticancer drug||Abies spectabillis|
|Coscinum fenestratum||Berberine||Peet chandan||Antiseptic, antidiabetic, malaria||Unidentified species|
|Source: Indian Medicinal and Aromatic Plants facing genetic erosion, by Sushil Kumar, Janardhan Singh, NC Shah and Vinay Rajan, Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow, 1997|
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