Traditional medicine: Affirmation or resurgence

Fijians watched our health workers scramble to keep as COVID-19 spread its invisible tentacles through one community after another. The sirens never stopped. Sobering images of burials by strangers cloaked in protective gear became a daily reminder of a way of a life lost for peoples that celebrate and grieve communally.

Urbanites rushed for paracetamol, sanitizers and vevedu (a traditional Fijian medicine). Rural families continued life as best they could behind village gates shut to non-residents.

“We have been building our immune system from infancy. Traditional medicine does not just take away pain, it roots out sicknesses and what enables it to develop inside you,” Sera Vikali, 43, says of the resilience of villagers reliant on traditional practices.

COVID-19 could’ve been any other sickness. Some medicine can be mixed from four or nine different leaves, sometimes we only need four. These are more for preventation. We will however prepare things differently, and sometimes it will involve barks of trees, if you come with a specific illness.”

A masseuse gifted with traditional medicinal knowledge passed down to her from her mother and other women in the village, Vikali swears by the medicinal values of plants.

Traditional medicine

Did the outbreak of COVID-19 in Fiji initiate a resurgence of traditional medicinal practices or did it just bring it to the fore?

The World Health Organization defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”.

WHO provides that herbal medicines include herbs (singular plants or a combination of herbs). 170 of the 194 WHO members states have acknowledged their use of traditional and complementary medicine, 97 members states have a national policy on tradition/complementary medicine and 124 member states reported presence of laws or regulations for herbal medicines.

By virtue of its claim to being the cradle of mankind, Africa claims to be the oldest practitioner of traditional medicine and with the most assorted of all therapeutic systems. The continent’s biological and cultural diversity affords it a significant variation of healing practices. As is true for both the African continent and our ocean states, traditional healers offer a more holistic approach. They are not just about the immediate illness or injury: their advisories, information and counselling are lot more contextualised to the patients’ realities.

China and India are similarly established sites of traditional medicine.

Chinese traditional medication began thousands of years ago. Plants first used in traditional medicine have provided ingredients for 200 modern medicines. Traditional Chinese healers seek to restore the balance of body and mind, which they believe ensures good health.

A public survey of traditional, complementary and integrative medicine use during the COVID-19 outbreak in Hong Kong found that more than 40% of the respondents had used at least one form of traditional medicine during the pandemic.

While the researchers acknowledged that vaccination, social distancing, and careful hygiene are key methods of controlling the spread of disease, they recommended that the people’s evolving preferences should be tracked by traditional medicine practitioner groups so they could make appropriate recommendations, which “should be disseminated to the public through the mass media to help the public make informed choices.”

Simi Sevudredre of the Fijian Government’s iTaukei Institute of Language and Culture does not agree with the proposition that COVID-19 brought on a resurgence of traditional medication. Referring to a 1982 study of medical behavior in Fiji, Sevudredre reiterates that specialist healers using herbal remedies was long-standing practice among almost all ethnic groups.

“It is therefore erroneous to totally conclude that herbal medicine ‘resurgence’ during the COVID-19 crises was purely an antagonistic response or fear of vaccines.  Herbal medicines have been around and will always be exist in the Fijian communities,” Sevudredre told Islands Business.

Suliana Siwatibau believes that “traditional medicine will remain a part of our bundle of health treatments as long as it is effective”. A botanical scholar and teacher, specialising in intersectional issues between environment and social and economic development, her consultancy work across the Pacific and Asia has fought the progressive loss of traditional knowledge, as well as crops and biodiversity. She is also driving local initiatives like the WaiMakare Forest Farm.

Now, Siwatibau is not just dreaming of a school on natural medicine, she’s writing a book that she hopes be on the reading list. Funded by the iTaukei Trust Fund Board, the book will launched within weeks. Siwatibau envisions a school that will can develop treatment options complementary to existing health systems.

“Young people who are interested in taking up natural medicine could then go to that school, and we could use this kind of information,” Siwatibau says in a TTFB pre-launch video conversation. “We go to India for medical treatment, they are very advanced in ayruvedic medicine which is their traditional medicine. Same as in China …  that’s my hope in writing this information, so that at least it stays alive.”

Making space

International interest in traditional complementary medication is expanding and becoming increasingly commercialised. With this comes standardisation in production and in terms of trade systems.

The practice of traditional medicine comes with specialist knowledge on both the flora and fauna of a people and a place. Practitioners also manage communities’ well-being: they maintain balance with their preventative medicine and provide healing for illnesses.

Their knowledge and skills contribute to conservation[1] and community solidarity. Researchers on Gau Island looking at traditional medicine in 2015 emphasised that “…understanding the mechanisms and contribution of the TRM system with related social and ecological factors may lead to more sustainable communities”.

The WHO has been working with its member states to develop national policies and regulations concerning traditional medicine. What implications will the globalisation of traditional products and practice have on communities who have developed this knowledge and practice over thousands of years?

A sample of medicinal plants as shared by Suliana Siwatibau

Totodro, common name: pennywort, is sold in New Zealand herbal stores. Asia Pacific plant: headaches, stomach pains, piles, diarrhea, dysentery, women’s menstrual issues, children’s high fever, skin issues, liver problems, chills and high fevers.

Botebotekoro, common name: goatweed: not used on their own, used in combination with other plants. It can be used to treat women’s reproductive issues, septic wounds and arthritis, sore throat, etc: drunk fresh.

Kanacala, Blue Rat’s Tail, weed – high blood pressure, cancer. Used a lot now for high blood pressure but process is specific, can’t touch it and it needs to be fermented.

Layalaya – maintain blood sugar, is usually given to children. Wild ginger. Counter pre-diabetic conditions, even just to keep us all healthy.

Verevere – common name: wild jasmine. Used for fevers, chest complaints, STIs, relapse, ciguatera, dengue fever, poisonous fish.

Kavika – rose or malay apple: one of the many plants that USP tested for diabetes treatment, it was hailed the most effective anti-diabetic medicine we use.

 This article is part of our series on the State of Pacific health this month. For more stories in the series login to your account or subscribe today.