Curing our medical vision

Published: Saturday 30 September 1995

AT A time when a growing number of Western countries are focusing in on alternate medicine, India is neglecting its traditional cures. In the urban centres, where the manufacturers of allopathic drugs launch aggressive, no-holds-barred marketing campaigns, the off-take too is phenomenal, with many popping pills as a matter of routine, whether their bodies need them or not. Self-cure of symptoms are propagated in advertisements, which never mention that drugs have to be recommended by physicians.

The setback to the popularity of home remedies and traditional medicine in the metropolitan cities and large urban conglomerates is the cumulative effect of the priorities set by the peer group of medical scientists after 1947. It was distinctly their Western education, training and practice that permeated the carving out of a national health care policy. Today, there are many who'd hold the politicians responsible for this. Yet, it will be totally wrong for the Indian scientists to blame them for neglecting Indian med ical systems - from Mahatma Gandhi to Raj Narain to P V Narasimha'Rao, there have been many with a keen interest in the subject. Unfortunately, they have all run up against a brick wall.

A revival could have come early enough, but the opportunity was missed. On a visit to post-war Vietnam, P M Bhargava, a former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, saw the largescale use of herbs and the meticulous documentation of case studies of patients under treatment. On his return, he recommended to former Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi, that one of the best forms of development assistance India could provide to the country then trying to reshape itself, would be to send a tearnof bio-statisticians, to supplement their researches in ethno-medicine, and identify effective curative herbs from the enormous records they possessed. But the file gathered dust. There was no follow up action. A first rate opportunity for acquiring knowledge about systematising ethno-medicine was lost.

This lacuna was brought to the fore at the May meeting in Simla of specialists in Indian Systems of Medicine (ism), with representatives of the World Bank, which is willing to provide an impetus to traditional medicine. Preliminary consultations showed up the anxiety of the donor agency over the lack of case and control studies on patients, standardisation and quality control of drugs, besides an acceptable format for project proposals.

Another opportunity for a significant initiative in making sure cures in traditional systems of medicine available to a larger number of people has come with Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao's decision to promote Indian systems of medicine and homeopathy. The Directorate General of Health Services has secured the services of exponents of the different disciplines as in-house advisers. But the indications are that they are fast transmutating into bureaucrats tied down with procurement procedures, instead of being in touch with the ground realities for policy formulation.

Over the years, faith in the traditional systems of medication have been eroded, possibly due to the low profile maintailied by its practitioners, who scarcely ever project the spectacular cures they have effected through their systems. Had it been known, for instance, how many of the superstars, both of the filmy and political variety, actually depend on ayurvedic or unani systems for their personal daily health conditioning, it would ensure a major growth of interest among the masses. But today, among the students of traditional systems, there is a perceptible lack of confidence in their own discipline.

Several drug manufacturers are cashing in on the increas- ing environmental consciousness about the benign quality of natural products, anil actually including elements well outside their regimen. And @'the biggest single misuse of the now growing curiosity o6lherbals is being made by the cosmetics industry.

Yet, a large number of common people have faith in the hakim and the vaid, ,who need only to be true to their disciplines. The "back-to-herbs" movement is catching on in the urbari,areas, especially with people becoming more and more aware that allopathic drugs so*Jimes have after-effects which can be trauntatising; for instance, the use of steroids in several types of treatments.

It is a welcome sign that today dispen-saries run by civic bodies, like the New Delhi Municipal Committee, and by the Central Government Health Services, are offering complementary treatments and medicines, with unani and ayurvedic doctors in attendance.

This practice in public health care could set the long-term agenda for herbal medicine and other complementary therapies. With a large number of young doctors just coming out of colleges opting for Indian systems of medicine, the time is now ripe to make sure that the ailing are given a choice, and not persistently subjected to one mode of treatment.

The Chinese, Tibetans and Arabs have for centuries treasured the wisdom of the ages. And their traditional medicinal systems have given the world several spectacular cures. We need to learn from them. But this means that organisations like the Indian Council of Medical Research and, in fact, the entire medical profession would have to be made more conscientious, accountable and reasonable.

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