Sat, 12 Apr 2003

People turn to Chinese herbs in fear of SARS

Apriadi Gunawan, Contributor, Medan

As Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) haunts the world with no cure yet in sight, fear grips people everywhere.

In Medan, apart from equipping themselves with masks, some have even found themselves turning to traditional medicine to fight off the virus.

A traditional Chinese medicine seller, Halim, currently enjoys brisk business as people flock to buy his concoctions. In the past week alone, he claims to have sold an average of 200 packets per day of his concoction, known as liang tea.

"I was simply curious to find out how effective this concoction is in preventing infection by the SARS virus," said a housewife of Thai origin, who bought five packets.

Married to a Chinese-Indonesian from Medan, the woman said she was very concerned about the spread of SARS and had decided to give the concoction, prepared by Sinshe (traditional Chinese doctor) Halim, a try.

Some even arrived at Halim's shop with their own "prescription" of traditional concoctions prepared by traditional Chinese doctors from Singapore and China. Some had received the prescription from relatives living in the two countries.

SARS has killed more than 90 people as it has hopscotched around the world, cropping up in places as disparate as Hanoi and Ontario after an apparent debut in southern China.

Halim claimed that, essentially, concoctions that he prepared and those by foreign doctors were not that different from each other.

"These concoctions (the ones he had prepared and those from foreign doctors) are to cure flu, breathing problems and coughs," said Halim, who has practiced Chinese medicine for 25 years.

He said his concoction comprised eight varieties of dried leaf, flower and root. But it contained no tea leaves, despite its name.

Halim said the eight materials in the concoction were Kam Cau, Kim Gin Hua, Ce Su Yek, Pan Lan Ken, Niu Phang Ce, Cih Yek It Ce Hua, Poh Ho and Pheng Theng. Except for Pheng Theng, or sugar, the other materials were imported from China.

Each of these eight materials has its own efficacy. Kam Cau, for example, is a kind of sweet grass that can remove toxins and combine the effectiveness of the functions of the other ingredients. Kim Gin Hua, the bud of a white flower, is good for lung infections, coughing, dysentery and a variety of ulcers. It also makes it easier for the body to rid itself of phlegm. Anoth er material, Pan Leng Ken is a sort of anti-flu virus leaf.

In the production process, all of the seven materials -- apart from Pheng Theng, added later for taste, are specially prepared, in the correct quantities. The seven ingredients are then left in water for 20 minutes before being boiled for about 15 minutes. The sugar is added according to taste.

"Let the ingredients boil and then cool off before you filter the water and the remaining ingredients. You don't have to throw away the remaining ingredients after using them once, as you can boil them again for a second time," Halim said.

Clinical tests aside, Halim claimed the Chinese had years of experience in traditional medicine. "In Indonesia, although this concoction has been on sale since the 1950s, it has not yet been clinically tested," said the man, who claimed that he had learned Chinese medicine from his parents and studied the subject in China for three years.

Head of the food and drug inspection center of North Sumatra Sukiman Said Umar said the traditional concoction had not yet been clinically tested and urged it be medically proven before it be claimed as effective against SARS, as so far, not a single cure had been identified for the condition.

"If the claims were true -- that this concoction is effective in preventing SARS or even curing it -- that would be a sign of great progress, as even the World Health Organization has yet to find a cure," Sukiman said.