AYUSH’s dangerous prescription: Unani medicines for ‘symptomatic management of coronavirus infection’

Coronavirus

The AYUSH Ministry appears to be encouraging people to self-medicate. It has sent out a press release listing out specific Unani medicines that would be “useful in symptomatic management of coronavirus infection”. Ironically, the release does not even mention the symptoms that people infected with coronavirus exhibit.

Nearly four weeks after China first reported to the World Health Organization about the novel virus in a cluster of 41 patients in the city of Wuhan, modern medicine has not found any particular drug to specifically treat and cure the novel viral infection.

What is currently provided to people infected with the novel virus is only symptomatic treatment, including making sure patients get enough oxygen, and using a ventilator to push air into the lungs if necessary to allow the patients to survive long enough for the immune system to fight the disease.

Unani medicines for symptomatic management

But the AYUSH Ministry appears to be encouraging people to self-medicate. It has sent out a press release listing out specific Unani medicines that would be “useful in symptomatic management of coronavirus infection”.

On what evidence did the AYUSH ministry dish out this recommendation? Does it even know the range of symptoms that people infected with the novel coronavirus exhibit?

Ironically, the release does not even mention the symptoms that people infected with coronavirus exhibit and no mention is made about which medicine should be taken for managing which specific symptom.

While using the untested Unani medicines for symptomatic management of coronavirus may not help treat the infection, such practice might prove counterproductive — close contacts run a greater risk of getting infected. After all, 16 healthcare workers in China have developed infection despite following the protocols. The first step to cut the transmission cycle is to isolate the infected patient.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, coronavirus symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The illness also causes lung lesions and pneumonia. Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, making detection difficult. According to the New York Times, “Chinese authorities have said they had seen cases that did not meet the usual description. In these patients, the first symptoms were gastrointestinal, including diarrhoea.”

In the case of Ayurveda, a couple of medicines as “prophylactic measures/immunomodulatory drugs as per the Ayurvedic practices” have been recommended. But it does clearly mention that the “advocacy is for information only and shall be adopted in consultation with registered Ayurveda practitioners only”. Such cautionary note has not been mentioned in the case of Unani drugs.

Prophylactic homoeopathy medicine

In the case of homeopathy, the release says: “The Group of Experts inter-alia has recommended that homoeopathy medicine Arsenicum album30 could betaken as prophylactic medicine against coronavirus infections, which has also been advised for prevention of ILI. It has recommended one doze of Arsenicum album 30, daily in empty stomach for three days. The dose should be repeated after one month by following the same schedule in case coronavirus infections prevail in the community.”

The recommendation for homeopathy medicines is based on the recommendation of the Scientific Advisory board that met on January 28 at the instance of Ministry of AYUSH to “discuss the way and means of prevention of coronavirus infection through homeopathy”.

The release does state the standards precautions that one needs to take to avoid getting infected such as washing hands with soap, avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and wearing a mask.

Microbial causation

“Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani do not believe in microbial causation of disease unlike homeopathy,” says Prof. Jacob John, a retired virologist. “In traditional system of medicine, there is no need for disease diagnosis before disease treatment.”

Dr. Bhavana Prasher, an Ayurveda doctor from the Delhi-based CSIR- Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) counters Prof. John. She says: “Ayurveda does consider external trigger including microbes. But it does not look at individual microbes. The strategy of management is to boost a person’s immune system and allow it to fight the disease.”

Prof. John goes further and says that while modern medicine demands evidence through clinical trials, traditional medicine goes by an expert’s teaching that in turn goes by dogma.

Sequencing the genome

After the Chinese researchers first shared the whole genome sequence of the novel coronavirus, a few more teams located in other countries have posted the sequence. It was based on the genome sequence that Chinese researchers could tell that the novel virus belongs to the coronavirus family. And preliminary results from whole genome sequencing show that this novel coronavirus has similarity with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus.

Apart from these basic details, not much is known about the virus in terms of the source of the virus, precise duration of incubation, and what makes it quite easily transmissibility and severity. Most reported cases have been mild, with about 20% of patients experiencing severe disease, the WHO said.

Published in The Hindu on January 29, 2020