(Asharq Al Awsat) – The herbal medicine industry is not immune to the manipulation of imposters in the field. People seeking treatment for their ailments are sometimes deceived by practitioners who prescribe harmful herbal medicines and concoctions. An extremely competitive lucrative business has appeared on the markets in Saudi Arabia of late, evidence of which may be seen in the newspapers and pamphlets that advertise remedies claiming to be able to succeed where the jinns and Aladdin’s lamp have failed. Those afflicted are easily manipulated by confident claims to cure diseases that the doctors could not, forking out large sums of money in the vain hope of being relieved of their symptoms. Imposters in the field use plants of an inferior quality and mix them with chemicals to provide immediate positive results. The effects soon wear off however, and it can sometimes be difficult to save the lives of people whose health is severely affected by these bad treatments.
Dr. Mohamed Bin Abdullah al Tufail, head of Toxicology and Bioanalysis section in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine department of Riyadh’s King Faisal’ Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, explained that there is a wide variety of natural herbs, the benefits of which have been known for many centuries. Herbs like anise, caraway and mint are renowned for their ability to maintain a healthy digestive system, while stevia is used for slimming and to help quit smoking. He cites the example of the black caraway [nigella sativa], whereby the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) said, “There is a healing in black caraway for all diseases except death.”
When using herbal remedies, Dr. al Tufail emphasizes the importance of noting that, “There are certain conditions that must be present before people can use natural herbs for treatment. One must take into account the type of the herb used, its planting location and ensure that it is irrigated using clean water. Upon harvesting, the plants must be free of insects and pests and should be stored appropriately so as not to lose their properties.” He stipulates the importance of the qualification of those who prescribe natural and herbal remedies in administering the right doses. He stated that analyzing some of the herbs available on the market has led to the discovery that they contain chemical additives that could be detrimental to health and could lead to serious diseases, and in some cases, may even cause death. For example, some of the herbs that are used for potency and as aphrodisiacs were mixed with Viagra pills, which could cause serious complications and side effects.
After conducting pathology tests on some of the mixtures used as hair dyes, it was found that they contained substances that were harmful to the skin, as well as lead and mercury additives which have side effects such as hair loss and skin infection, and in some cases have been proven to be carcinogenic. He adds, “Unfortunately, what we see now is deception. Some herbal medicine dealers add Voltaren or Panadol, among other analgesics which tricks consumers into thinking that the remedies are effective. Also, some have been known to contain narcotic drugs, such as amphetamine, which is addictive when used for long periods.”
Salim Abdullah, a victim of such circumstances relates his experience, “My wife suffers from renal failure and has often endured pain from kidney dialysis. One of my acquaintances advised me to go to a prominent doctor in Jeddah who practices herbal medicine. I bought a remedy that was, according to the doctor, made of honey and other natural additives. I was surprised to find that the price was 600 Saudi Riyals and managed to bring the price down to 150 Riyals hoping that it would be effective. Two days after taking it, my wife went into a coma and we had to rush her to hospital. She recovered from the coma and her condition stabilized, thank God. Doctors informed us there had been a substantial rise in potassium levels in her blood due to the fact that she had taken herbs containing unknown ingredients.” He also remembers another experience in which a herbal therapist who people referred to as ‘doctor’ once tried to sell him a mixture for his wife’s condition and insisted that he buy a large amount for 1600 Riyals. Despite negotiating and paying 300 Riyals, the medicine proved to be equally as ineffective. He asked, “How are these imposters allowed to put people’s lives at such risk, exploiting them and making business of people’s suffering?”
Other experiences include selling a ‘special mixture’ made in Lebanon for weight loss, while others claim to be able to increase potency. Neither achieves the desired results, and the only outcome is being conned of large amounts of money.
Liver and gastroenterology specialist, Dr. Mohamed Abdel Moghni al Sayyed at the Jeddah National Hospital stresses the importance of the medical certification and licensing of practitioners. He cites a case in which a patient arrived at the hospital suffering from acute liver inflammation, only to discover that the lab tests revealed an alarming rise in liver enzymes. The patient had allegedly been using natural medication that was prescribed by an unlicensed practitioner.
Education supervisor at the Saudi Ministry of Education, Sulayman al Khalil maintained that, “the task of treating this phenomenon should be assigned to the media. Specialists must address these issues on programs and talk shows to warn people of the danger of these prescriptions and make people aware of so-called curers and imposters in the field. Additionally, a large share of the responsibility falls on the Ministry of Commerce to help curb the spread of these prescriptions in places where they are sold without medical licenses.” Al Khalil supports imposing fines to help stop such activity and save human lives, adding that the Ministry of Health must monitor the manufacturing of these medicines.
Yet the question remains, can the sale of natural herbs be regulated after running lab research and analysis to ensure their safety?