Janaka Perera discusses the need to restore our traditional medical system

Sri Lanka’s healthcare sector is facing serious challenges including shortages of medicinal drugs in state hospitals, substandard and outdated medicines, the inability of the masses to afford the high cost of prescribed drugs and an exodus of medical professionals to other countries.

The global pharmaceutical industry has also been facing problems with the drug delivery process becoming extremely expensive, risky and inefficient. Consequently, there has been a marked shift in favour of single to multi-targeted drugs – especially for polygenic diseases based on traditional medicinal knowledge.

As such, it’s important for Sri Lanka to pay greater attention to traditional medicine as India, China and some other countries have done. Evidence shows that Ayurveda and hela wedakama (Sri Lanka’s indigenous medical system) perform better than Western medicine especially in the case of chronic diseases.

What’s generally known today in Sri Lanka as ‘Ayurveda’ is actually a mixture of Indian, Arabic Unani and hela wedakama. Unani – with its Hellenistic origins – was brought to us by the Arabs.

Nature has gifted both humans and animals with an instinctive knowledge of various medicinal plants. For instance, we see cats eating the roots of catnip plants when they have indigestion.

Portuguese Army officer Captain João Ribeiro, who served in Sri Lanka from 1641 to 1659, wrote about the amazing cures of hela wedakama in his book titled ‘Fatalidade Histórica da Ilha de Ceilão’ (The Historic Tragedy of the Isle of Ceylon).

He wrote: “As a rule, they are a healthy race… They are great herbalists; and in case of wounds, tumours, broken arms and legs, they effect a cure in a few days with ease. As for cancer, which is a loathsome and incurable disease among us, they can cure it in eight days, removing all viscosity from the scab with-out so much as leaving a mark anywhere to show that the disease had been there.”

“In truth, the land is full of herbs and many antidotes to poison, which I myself tried to learn as a remedy against snakebites,” Ribeiro added.

In fact, almost every Sri Lankan villager of that era was a physician to some degree.

It is essential to encourage interdisciplinary research if we are to revive our ancient medical systems.

The need is to involve all basic sciences – such as physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and biotechnology – together with ethno-pharmacology, traditional drug discovery, reverse pharmacology and various other disciplines, for a better understanding and optimistic outcomes of traditional medical research.

Over the past few years, the interdisciplinary concept of research has introduced Ayurveda, mainly for integrative medicine. For example, Ayurveda recommends the use of a copper pot for water purification because it contains antibacterial qualities that can combat ‘diarrheagenic’ bacteria.

The multidimensional approach of combining traditional and modern medicine is growing day by day in the Western world. And the clinical efficacy of many traditional medications for a variety of diseases has been found to be comparatively better than that of modern medicine.

Traditional medicine is comparatively safe, and can help reduce the enormous burden of mortality and morbidity caused by the various side effects of conventional prescribed drugs.

This system is also found to be effective against various diseases where pathogens have developed resistance to antibiotics. More interdisciplinary research is needed to fight the most chronic diseases.

Herbal extracts of therapeutic relevance are of great importance as reservoirs of structural and chemical diversity.

Interestingly, more than 120 distinct ‘phytochemicals’ from different plants have been found to have lifesaving qualities. These compounds have been formulated through the chemical and pharmacological screening of only six percent of the total plant species.

The National Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) has already begun extensive research to develop antiinflammatory compounds from turmeric, ginger and Boswellia with the aid of Ayurvedic knowledge. And the screening of numerous herbs for treating cancer has been done using traditional knowledge.

Herbal gardens are a key factor in promoting Ayurveda. In Sri Lanka, native healing practices are deeply intertwined with the use of herbal medicines and traditional herbal gardens on the island can be traced back for centuries.

Ancient Ayurvedic wisdom combined with indigenous knowledge have cultivated a unique approach to herbal medicine.

Moreover, herbal gardens have been established under the guidance of the Department of Ayurveda in Haldummulla, Pattipola, Pallekele and Girandurukotte, and on land belonging to the department.

The main challenge to the survival of these herbal gardens is the continuous deforestation that’s taking place in the country; and as such, it’s the government’s duty to arrest this trend without further delay.