‘Tawa-tawa’ is no laughing matter

By Herbert Vego

SOMETIME last week, I read a newspaper article about a doctor belittling the wild plant “tawa-tawa” for giving “false hope” to dengue patients, for which there is no effective drug, given the failure of Dengvaxia to deliver its healing promise.

But since there are townsfolk who swear they have been cured by tawa-tawa, papaya leaves or any other herbal concoction, shouldn’t the pharmaceutical industry have developed them into pharmaceutical grade, as it did to lagundi for cough?

I remember that in October 2018, then Congressman Gary Alejano requested the Congressional Committee on Health to investigate the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had raided and closed the medical clinic of Dr. Farrah Agustin-Bunch (a licensed physician) in Tarlac City for selling herbs grown in her backyard. There have been hearings done for that purpose but with no conclusive findings.

The sweeping closure of her clinic angered her patients, who argued that the government should have done more to promote traditional medicine through the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) as initially implemented by the late President Fidel Ramos in 1998.

As proposed by the late Senator Juan Flavier (a physician), the law created the Traditional Medicine Authority (TMA) to promote systematic and scientific development of alternative and traditional medicine in the Philippines. It was intended to complement, not displace, conventional medicine practice.

President Ramos predicted that it would end the passivity of the government in promoting cheap herbal alternatives. How wrong he was!

After 26 years, unfortunately, the law has hardly taken off – no thanks to the hostility of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA), which had attempted to block its passage on the pretext that it would stall, rather than advance, medical science.

The TMA, on the other hand, has surprisingly made itself inactive – probably due to PMA pressure. Deafening is its silence vis-à-vis the foul tactics of multinational drug companies to discredit unprocessed herbs.

The TMA has reneged on its mandate to provide the administrative framework for the protection of the herbal medicine industry.

In fairness, however, a few local drug companies have taken steps in synthesizing FDA-approved indigenous medicinal plants into tablets, capsules and syrup, such as lagundi for cough and asthma; tsaang gubat, an antispasmodic; akapulco, an anti-fungal herb; sambong, a diuretic; yerba buena, antipyretic; ampalaya, anti-diabetic; bawang (local garlic), anti-choleterolomic; bayabas (local guava); niyug-niyogan, anthelmintic; and ulasimang bato, anti-hyperuricemic.

In my case, I sip the six-peso senna tea whenever I suffer from constipation.

Had TAMA been fully implemented by TMA in collaboration with the FDA, an estimated 70 other folkloric plants would have already been approved for therapeutic uses. The vegetable malunggay, for instance, when encapsulated, still bears the FDA-required warning “no approved therapeutic claim.” And yet it sells like hotcakes simply because users find it effective against hypertension, arthritis, scabies and constipation, among others. No wonder manufacturers of “junk noodles” have decided to enrich them with malunggay.

The failure of the law to right the wrong image of traditional medicine as quackery stems from the bias of Filipino physicians for conventional Western pharmacology as taught in medical schools. Multinational drug companies, fearful of diminishing patronage, sponsor yearly foreign junkets for popular specialists who prescribe their branded drugs. Moreover, proud physicians cling to the belief that primitive medicine is obsolete in modern times. They would not have spent a decade in college if they would only end up as “glamorized herbolarios.”

On the contrary, other countries have extensively explored indigenous and alternative healing traditions. Singapore has successfully built training schools for paramedical practitioners of plant-based medicine.

The Office of Alternative Medicine in Washington DC has officially validated homeopathy — a medical system based on the belief that the body can cure itself using tiny amounts of natural substances.

Nutritional medicine – made up of fruits, herbs and vegetables — was the stuff that the Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates (460-357 BC), prescribed to his patients.

What the f_ck! Today’s doctors swear by the Hippocratic Oath with no idea what Hippocrates taught.