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HEALTH-INDIA: Ayurveda Under Attack from Modern Medicine

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 11 2005 (IPS) - As ayurveda, India’s ancient herbal system of longevity and health revives in popularity it is coming under fire from the practitioners of modern allopathic medicine who accuse it of quackery and its preparations of being loaded with toxic metals and even steroids.

”Increasingly I have my patients asking me if it is safe to take the ayurvedic preparations I prescribe them,” Sujath Kumar, chief physician of India’s well-known Santhigiri Ashram chain of ayurvedic clinics, told IPS in an interview.

Kumar said he explains that the Santhigiri Ashram runs its own herbariums and processes its own medicines according to ancient texts and there is little chance of their getting contaminated with heavy metals or spiked with steroids.

There may be people who try to make a fast buck by adulterating ayurvedic medicines or compromise on processing standards, but, he noted, that is happening even with products in allopathic, or conventional medicine. Allopathy generally involves a focus on the treatment of symptoms and excludes holistic, non-medical, non-surgical treatments.

”What troubles me is that the efficacy of ayurvedic medicines depends so much on the faith of patients in the medicines, and the last thing the system needs is adverse propaganda by people who understand nothing of this ancient science,” he said.

Ayurveda, developed over 5,000 years, uses herbs, medicated oils and massages to stimulate the body’s natural defence mechanisms to overcome ailments, allergies and conditions after the physician first assesses the patient’s body type. Millions of people swear by the system in India and elsewhere.

But doubts have been spreading among users of ayurvedic medicines since the Dec. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) carried the results of study saying that 20 percent of packaged ayurvedic sold in the United States contained traces of lead, mercury and arsenic at levels that could be toxic.

In the United States, ayurvedic products are sold as dietary supplements, which do not require proof of safety or efficacy. Since 1978, at least 55 cases of heavy metal intoxication associated with ayurvedic products consumed by adults and children have been reported in the U.S. and other countries, Robert Saper of the Harvard Medical School and his fellow doctors said in the JAMA paper.

They analysed 70 ayurvedic products available from shops in the Boston area, in the north-east U.S., and found that 14 of them contained lead, mercury or arsenic. If the manufacturer’s recommended dose was consumed, it would greatly exceed permissible levels, according to the researchers.

As the news of the Boston study spread to India it began sowing the seeds of doubts among hundreds of thousands of users who prefer ayurvedic treatment over the allopathic not only because they are known to work but are also cheaper.

As the controversy grew it created a furore in India’s Parliament. So much so that Kapil Sibal, Minister for Science and Technology made a solemn denial that ayurvedic medicines contained toxic substances and suggested that in all probability the Boston studies were ”motivated” by other interests.

Sibal said he found it curious that the reports were coming out at a time when ayurveda was slowly gaining popularity in the United States, while allopathic treatments were becoming steadily unaffordable, especially for millions of people without medical insurance.

Indeed the JAMA study itself noted that at least 750,000 adults in the U.S. were known to use ayurvedic medicines, all paying for them out of pocket since ayurveda is not licensed for practice in that country.

According to Dr. Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, a well-know cardiologist and president of the Delhi Medical Association (DMA), unlike Chinese medicine, which is licensed, ayurveda has not been promoted by any significant lobby and it is only in recent times that groups like the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), with more than 50,000 members, have decided to take up the issue.

”About the only promotion that has been happening is the result of efforts by charismatic personalities like Deepak Chopra, author of ‘Ageless Body, Timeless Mind’ and other books that promote ayurvedic principles,” Aggarwal said.

A medical doctor who trained at the Lahey Clinic in Boston and at the University of Virginia Hospital, Chopra is critical of the fact that the medical community in the United States does not accept ayurvedic medicine. His own Chopra Centre for Well Being is not a licensed medical care facility but listed as ”experimental.”

Aggarwal, who initially trained in pharmacology, said it was unfair of allopathic doctors to ”scare” people away from ayurvedic remedies, especially when many allopathic drugs have severe side-effects which are often never properly explained.

By attacking ayurveda, many valuable cures for diseases or conditions that are considered intractable in modern medicine, are being denied to patients who may benefit from them, whether in India, the U.S. or elsewhere, Aggarwal said.

Added Sujath Kumar: ”It is bad enough that many herbs that go into the manufacture of ayurvedic drugs are now in short supply or are being targeted by biopirates seeking to isolate the active principles and make tidy profits out of them, but actively denigrating ayurveda is doing a great disservice to humanity.”

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