Herbal Healing #1/4 ( By TIMEasia.com )

Could Asia's traditional medicine chest hold the cures to age-old ills―and can Western science finally unlock its secrets? Simon Elegant investigates

Son Sarun came to the town of pailin in Cambodia's desolate northwest because of the stories he had heard: the $100,000 ruby found just over the next hill, the $25,000 sapphire that tumbled out of trousers being laundered in the river. He hadn't heard that the once gem-rich area had been largely mined out and all that remained was swamp and mosquitoes. When the 38-year-old former soldier came down with a headache and fever last year, he couldn't afford a doctor. He was no richer when blood appeared in his urine, sputum and excrement. One morning in December he collapsed.

"The doctor said the virus had already entered my brain," says the gaunt, hollow-eyed Sarun. The diagnosis: advanced cerebral malaria. In the past, that would have been a death sentence in Pailin, where the malaria parasite is resistant to all the main forms of quinine, the once miraculous antimalaria agent discovered in the bark of a South American tree four centuries ago. But Sarun's doctor wielded a potent new weapon, a non-quinine-based drug called artemisinin. After a week of daily shots, Sarun was back squatting in the muddy river, sifting rock and sand.

In the world of disease and medicine, artemisinin is like a gem discovered in a riverbed. For thousands of years, the plant it is derived from was used in traditional Chinese medicine to subdue fever. During China's brief war with Vietnam in 1979, the Chinese government gave its soldiers a crudely distilled antimalaria pill based on artemisinin―and it worked. Today, scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, where artemisinin was first isolated, have further refined the compound into what is now "simply the most effective antimalarial drug we've ever had," says FranCois Nosten, a physician who has spent 16 years combating malaria on the Thai-Burmese border under a program run by Mahidol University in Thailand and Oxford University in England.

After a five-year delay caused in part by skepticism that a drug based on a Chinese herbal remedy could be effective, the World Health Organization recently gave official backing for the distribution of an artemisinin-based medicine in Africa. "We have the drug that will save lives," Nosten says. "Now it is a question of getting enough cash to pay for

it and then getting it to the people who are sick." The payoff could be huge. In Africa, where resistance to quinine is spreading rapidly, 2 million people, mostly children, die from the disease annually.

Artemisinin is the biotech world's moniker for qing haosu, a crystalline compound extracted from sweet wormwood, a weedy plant indigenous to China. The curative powers of such plants are the basis of Asian traditional medicine―and from China through the rest of the continent there are literally millions of plants, combinations, shamanistic traditions and household remedies claiming to beat disease or boost health. The vast majority of Asians believe in them, and many use them loyally. For decades, however, this seemingly blind faith has sparked deep suspicion among Western scientists.

In some cases, such skepticism is richly deserved. Consider the 30 fretful souls lined up outside a shabby row house in a suburb of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. They're waiting eagerly on this steamy afternoon to see a man they call simply Shifu, or master. Inside, a ponytailed Chinese man in his late 50s sits at a wooden table. Each interview, conducted in full view of the expectant throng, takes just minutes. There's a quick feel of the pulse and blood pressure, a scan of the face and eyes, a pause to hear what's wrong, followed by a grim diagnosis ("your intestines are full of toxins, very dirty, your liver is gone, you are full of worms") and a prescription for medicine that will "detoxify" the patient. The Shifu mixes his own medicine upstairs (strictly no entry). He doesn't reveal his ingredients and his patients don't ask; they just glug down the brown liquid obediently. "I think I feel better," ventures a woman in her 40s after three weeks of this daily sludge and little else. "Anyway, I lost weight, though that might be because I spent so much time going to the toilet after I took the medicine."

Self-appointed herbal healers like this have long epitomized the world of traditional Asian medicine for many Western scientists: a chaotic, unregulated realm in which for every legitimate practitioner who spent years studying such texts as the "Taiping Royal Prescriptions"―first published in 992 and containing 16,800 formulas―there is some street-corner charlatan sweeping dried leaves and God-knows-what into jars that sell like crazy. All of which has led Western skeptics to dismiss much of traditional Asian healing as little better than witch doctoring.

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