"Ayurveda has no lobby"

David Frawley, director, American Institute of Vedic Studies, New Mexico, USA spoke to Vibha Varshney about ayurveda in the US

What's the future of ayurveda in USA?
Traditional medicine systems are now growing faster in the us than even modern medicine. Ayurveda is not licensed for practice, unlike Chinese and naturopathic medicines and chiropractics licensed in some states. Of the people who do accept traditional medicine, around 10 per cent would be using ayurveda. Americans are using these medicines even though they have to pay out of pocket and are not covered by insurance. Now, some insurance companies are covering traditional medicines; they have realised people who use traditional medicines are less expensive: they do not need expensive surgeries, hospital stays, testing and medication.

Why are some forms of alternative medicine licensed and not ayurveda?
In the us, licensing is by state and not at the national level. It's a matter of lobbying, political pressure and money. Getting a licence requires a fair amount of support and the Chinese community has done better. They are an older community than Indians in the us and they support their medicine system better. The medical practitioners of Indian origin in the us and the non-resident Indian (nri) community have not done much. The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (aapi), with around 50,000 members, has only recently started lending some support.

How do we promote ayurveda despite adverse reports on quality?
Issues of quality exist with all traditional medicines, and are used as a kind of scare tactic by the medical establishment. One line of attack is that these medicines have a lot of side effects. But a lot of pharmaceutical drugs have side effects, too. A lot of drugs have been removed from the market because of this. The drug industry wants to keep people afraid of herbs because drugs are much more dangerous. So they periodically scare people about herbs. Take the case of ephedra, which is just about twice as harmful as coffee. On the other hand, drugs like Tylenol are around 100-200 times more harmful.

What is stopping the US government from promoting ayurveda ?
The government does not accept these herbal medicines, for the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors who use their drugs control it. Let me give an example of their clout -- 25 per cent of American children are medicated every day and so are 90 per cent of people above age 65. Eight million children are receiving medicines for diseases that have little proof of existence, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity or depression. Ayurveda does not have a lobby. So if someone attacks it, there is no one to support it. If there is a study showing the adverse effects of ayurveda, there is no one to defend it.

In addition, the government cannot bring in too many new medical boards because they are expensive and there are insufficient numbers of practitioners for the board to pay for itself. Also, other groups object. For example the naturopathy group wants ayurveda within their scope of practice instead of being an independent system. Though universities are working on plants of Indian origin, they do not support ayurveda.

Is shortage of quality herbs an issue?
It is a potential issue. Herbal resources are not unlimited. The more people use them, the more they would be needed. Wild herbs are better, but to maintain a proper supply, they have to be cultivated. Initially common plants that can be harvested quickly and sold as teas can be grown but focus should be on trees. These require 30-40 years to grow, and with ayurveda use increasing, demand is going to increase correspondingly.

In fact, with our kind of lifestyle we should promote natural herbal medicines. Chemicals are useful to treat diseases, but are not good lifestyle. It's difficult to promote traditional medicines because nowadays we have less and less time and traditional healing takes time.

How do we go about getting ayurveda accepted?
The Chinese have been successful mainly because of strong lobbying by the government, industry and the community. The government wants proof of demand, which is difficult to get for a system that is not formally recognised as yet. I have been trying to implement a strategy: aapi should take up the cause; they have the resources and the political clout. We have also tried to mobilise nris. But it is not just about numbers. Significant funding is not there. There is no money to hire the lobbyists.

There is another problem that needs to be sorted out. Traditionally, ayurveda is a lifestyle. And people in the us want traditional ayurveda , which to them embodies a package of medicines and lifestyle including yoga or vaastu. But Indian colleges teach modern ayurveda ; the focus there is on scientific validation. Indian ayurvedic practitioners have a western mindset. So when they come to usa, they do not have the ability to give lifestyle advice. We have to retrain them to provide the traditional package of ayurveda as a way of life.

Down To Earth