Friday October 3, 2003

Malaysia to Meld Traditional, Scientific Healthcare

By Patrick Chalmers

MALACCA, Malaysia (Reuters) - Mrs. Ng cannot afford chemotherapy and hates the idea of surgery, so a cancer that has spread from her lungs to her neck could quickly kill the 56-year-old Malaysian mother of three.
Despite two decades of rapid economic growth, latest treatments for cancer, heart attacks and diabetes are too expensive for many of the Southeast Asian country's 24 million people.
Moreover, the country's ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, along with the indigenous Orang Asli and tribal people in Sarawak and Sabah states, all have their own traditional medical lore and practice.
They are often deeply suspicious of new ways.
Malaysia is now trying to marry the two approaches, combining science-based modern methods with the holistic style of traditional and complementary medicine (TCM).
The benefits, aside from the patients' wellbeing, could be lower national health costs because of better prevention and increased exports for the herbal medicine industry.
Ng had radiotherapy this year before doctors laid out her surgical, chemotherapy and pain-prevention options, none of which offers much hope of a cure.
The choices were too daunting for Ng and her spouse.
"I have seen many of my friends with chemotherapy, they didn't recover well," said her husband, a retired civil servant whose last job was in hospital administration.
The couple went instead to a clinic run by Mohd Ishak Syed Ahmad, a conventional ear, nose and throat surgeon who broadened into integrated medicine 14 years ago.
There Ng undergoes ozonation sessions, in which 100 milliliters of blood is drawn, ozone gas pumped into it and the blood then exposed to ultraviolet light before being returned to her body.
If the cancer can be stabilized by her better-oxygenated blood, Ng will move on to a colon-cleansing regime to improve her absorption of nutrients and boost liver function.
She will also go on a diet of organic food, much of it raw, including preparations from the leaves and flowers of the herb Misai Kuching (arthosiphon species), which helps the liver.
Ishak's philosophy is to cleanse the body and feed it properly to help it self-repair, using techniques learned at home and from China, India, Germany, Russia and the United States.
"We have complicated things by cutting here, cutting there, so many things, forgetting the basics," he says in Malacca, a Portuguese-influenced port on Peninsular Malaysia's west coast.
Ishak says a recent trip to his clinic by 70 or so government health officials saw titters and jibes subside as he showed evidence of helping to heal the hole in a baby's heart and saved a diabetic from losing his leg to gangrene.
"For 14 years I have been called a quack and all sorts of names but we just go on. It's between me and my patients, whether they're happy," he says.
Ismail Merican, a senior Health Ministry official, has the job of regulating Malaysia's vast and varied TCM sector with the task of advancing healthcare integration.
Sitting among piles of papers in his Kuala Lumpur office, the man who led Malaysia's response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus blasts the quality of the country's basic and clinical TCM research.
Ismail oversaw new guidelines for herbal medicine testing intended to standardise ingredient extraction, coordinate the work is done, regulate claims made and protect findings from intellectual property theft.
"With the availability of these guidelines, these people will have no excuses to do low-quality research," he said.
His ministry has also drafted a government bill on TCM, including a requirement that all practitioners register.
An overseer seems needed, given Malaysians' readiness to swallow all manner of potions for conditions as varied as heart and liver disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney stones and loss of sex drive.
Ismail says general practitioners need at least to be aware of what their patients may have taken.
M. Rajen, director of the Malaysian Herbal Corporation, is a trained pharmacist who worked for Swiss drugs company Ciba-Geigy before it was merged into Novartis in 1996.
He quit the strict, evidence-driven world of Western medicine after a homeopath cured him of a chronic skin condition that had resisted treatment with conventional drugs.
In place of blister packs Rajen now prescribes remedies such as Hempedu Bumi (andrographis panicaulata), a bitter herb traditionally taken with goat or coconut milk for hepatitis.
He put his wife on Senduduk (melastoma malabathricum), used after childbirth and for heavy menstrual bleeding and cramps.
With one in eight of the world's plant species growing in Malaysia the potential is huge, although Rajen warns against wasting time and money transforming herbal medicines into conventional pharmaceuticals.
"A pharmaceutical is more sexy to the public and to the government but they don't know what that means -- 19 years of work and half a billion dollars."
He said countries of the region should learn their lesson from bygone centuries when European invaders profited from the spice trade in nutmeg, cloves and mace.
"We are setting up for the herb wars now and we stand the risk of being spectators again. That's why Malaysia's got to get its act together."