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Alternative medical care still has its place. here’s why

Although Ayurveda can have positive effects when used as a complementary therapy in combination with standard and conventional medical care, it should not replace the latter, especially when treating serious conditions.

May 14, 2022, 09:30

Last modification: May 14, 2022, 09:50

Government Unani and Ayurvedic Medical College Medicinal Plant Garden. Photo: Noor-A-Alam


Government Unani and Ayurvedic Medical College Medicinal Plant Garden. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

At the Bagerhat District Health Complex, patients started arriving for doctor’s appointments, staff were ready with their entry books and doctors were also at their wooden desks to see patients, as any other day.

But there was something different about a day in March this year. Of the approximately 250-300 patients, 50-60 wanted to meet Dr. Monalisa Mushtereen, the Ayurvedic medical consultant at the health resort.

“There is a saying that the doctor’s words and empathy can heal a patient more effectively than drugs. In Ayurvedic and Unani medicine practices, we emphasize touch and sensory organs in addition medicine, dietary habits and lifestyle.

“The way I talk to my patients comforts them — maybe that’s why patients want to meet me,” Monalisa said.

Monalisa was in Bagerhat for a month and during that month she “had a number of regular patients”. She is currently practicing at the Government Ayurvedic and Unani Medical University Hospital (GAUMCH) at Mirpur in the capital Dhaka.

Like Dr. Monalisa Mushtareen, more than 400 practitioners of alternative medicine (Ayurveda, Unani, Homeopathy) work in government hospitals and health clinics under the alternative medical care system of the government of Bangladesh.

And according to the Bangladesh Board of Unani and Ayurvedic Systems of Medicine, there are currently over 12,000 Ayurvedic and Unani doctors in the country.

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

A pandemic effect

The pandemic seems to have triggered a surge in the popularity of natural medicine among people. In a nutshell, naturopathy or alternative and traditional medicine is gaining popularity in Bangladesh. But why this, especially when the pharmaceutical industry is doing very well?

According to the Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau, in the fiscal year 2018-2019, Bangladesh exported medicines to a total of 147 countries, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Vietnam, Afghanistan , Kenya and Slovenia. And the industry can meet 98% of its domestic needs.

When asked this question, Professor Dr Shwapan Kumar Dutta, Director of the Government University of Unani and Ayurvedic Medicine, said: “In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the ‘strategy Traditional Medicine 2014-2023” and the organization has been working to implement the strategy among its member states.

“The government of Bangladesh is also very supportive of this practice. In 2015, the government had announced alternative medical care where Ayurvedic and Unani doctors are appointed in government hospitals and health clinics.”

Dr. Monalisa referred to the 2014 election manifesto of the Bangladesh Awami League, in which it was stated that infrastructural, institutional and technological facilities should be increased to improve the level of education on indigenous medicines including unani , ayurveda and homeopathy.

“And the popularity has grown even more during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr Dutta said. When no conventional medicine worked, people died, and those who were alive had to build immunity through healthy habits rather than relying on supplements or drugs, naturopathy became popular.

Dr Hashi, Ayurvedic physician at Bera Upazilla Health Resort in Pabna shared his experience. She said, “At first, people here didn’t know me. Conventional doctors also neglected me as if I were some kind of charlatan.

“Patients were sent to my room like any other doctor would receive a batch of patients. But over time they got to know me better. Now patients want to book appointments with me.”

Although the council of Unani and Ayurvedic systems of medicine claims that currently 25% of the patients in the government hospital attend an alternative medicine service, there is not enough data to support this statistic. But still, it’s obvious that people are more open to it.

But does this mean that naturopathy is a substitute for conventional Western medical treatments? Are we supposed to rely on natural medicine if we are diagnosed with cancer?

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Alternative or traditional medicine is not a substitute for modern medicine or allopathy

Dr. Monalisa explained how in naturopathy or traditional medical care, treatment is given to patients with chronic conditions such as digestive issues, pain management, heart health, reproductive health, beauty solutions and skin, the management of obesity and, to some extent, psychological disorders. Treatment can include several medical systems such as Ayurvedic, Yoga, Unani, Homeopathy, Acupuncture, etc.

She said, “We never suggest a critical patient to take natural medicines and even if such patients come to us, we immediately refer them to conventional Western medicine and doctors.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicines, Ayurvedic treatment begins with a process of internal purification, followed by a special diet, herbal remedies, massage therapy, yoga, and meditation.

Agreeing with the fact, Dr. Monalisa said, “That’s why it’s a long process and more of a way of life. For better health and a better life, you can depend on natural remedies rather than taking medicine for every trivial discomfort – headache, stomach pain or fever. But when you have a serious illness, you have to see specialists and doctors.”

Natural medicines are not supposed to contain artificial or synthetic chemicals in the formula

The day I met Dr. Monalisa in the hospital, she was explaining to the mother of a one-year-old child what kind of food to feed the baby and how. Coincidentally, the day before, I had just finished reading “Ichamati”, a classic novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, where Ramkanai, the village Kobiraj or doctor, moved me the most.

I was amazed how he made traditional Ayurvedic medicine using Indian laburnum or golden shower tree, ghee, honey and other components.

When I entered the medical school that day, I expected someone to extract flowers or seeds from the herbal and medicinal plant garden in front of the medical school, preparing medicinal plants and herbs.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Monalisa said, suppressing a smile. “Alternative or complementary medicine is now standardized. We have modern classrooms with proper medical charts and equipment, we study biochemistry and pharmacology and work in laboratories. You won’t find mythological sages here.”

And not just traditional Ayurvedic, Unani, or homeopathy, ethnic communities in the mountainous regions of the country have their own local herbal medicines and treatments. According to the National Herbarium of Bangladesh Plant Database, more than 700 medicinal plants are used in these regions.

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

“It is true that natural medicine uses ingredients found in nature. We study their chemical components in the laboratory and prepare medicines with them. But we do not use synthetic chemicals in medicines because it is illegal.” said Dr. Dutta.

But many fraudulent and unregistered brands perpetuate this abusive practice. Dr. Dutta suggests that patients check each drug before taking it. The Bangladesh Pharmaceutical Industries Association (BAPI) website has a list of companies and drugs. According to this list, currently 204 Ayurvedic, 285 Unani medicine companies manufacture more than 7,000 medicines.

“You can easily check whether the drug is registered or not. Don’t just fall for any advertisement, but consult a professional practitioner.”

For the past four days, Shwapna Akhter has been in Bed 4 on the first floor of Government Unani and Ayurvedic Medical College Hospital. This young mother of a six-month-old child arrived in Dhaka from Khulna last week.

She has a problem with one of her joints and vaginal discharge. “Over the past six months, I have been to a number of ‘allopathic doctors’ and have had a lot of medicine. But nothing seems to work on me. And then someone in my village suggested me to to try natural medicine and treatment. That’s why I’m here.”

Although she complained, “Doctors and nurses are spotty and you won’t find a doctor when you need one. Most of the time the nurses are busy outside with their phones or chatting and if you ask for something, they misbehave.” But the treatment here is still cheap and she thinks the drugs are working on her.