A Glance at Traditional Medicine in Myanmar
March , 2015

The belief in turning to nature to heal and cure, is strong in nearly all Asian na- tions, and in Myanmar, even more so. Traditional medicine treatments have been followed in Myanmar for generations and continue to be popular even today, though more in remote rural areas, not least due to non availability of western (allopathic) medicines. Herbs and medicinal plants are found in abundance in his largely agrarian country, and serve as highly affordable remedies for dis- eases.

Understanding of traditional medicine remains vague. According to the World Health Organization, traditional medicine can be defined as the “sum total of knowledge, skills and practices” of unique cultural origin that can be used for treating dis- eases and promoting wellness. This includes home remedies, naturopathy and all that we refer to as alternative medicine, but has been followed
for decades.

Evidence has been found of the first use of traditional medicine as far back as 600 BC, and was passed on from one generation to the next, with its use becoming secondary once western medicine became popular and offered quicker remedies to symptoms of illnesses. In the midst of ups and downs in its use, the Myanmar government’s decision to formally include traditional medicine in the nation’s healthcare system, has given the science of natural healing a much needed boost, while also promoting holistic well being.

Allopathic versus Traditional Medicine

There is no denying that allopathic or western medicine is the treatment of the last resort, and the preferred op- tion for life-threatening, killer diseases, which also provides quick relief. But while curing one set of symptoms, it leaves a trail of side effects that can be damaging as well. Naturopaths argue that western treatment is all about suppression of symptoms, not internal healing which is so essential for well being.

However, western medicines are tried and tested, subject to strict reg- ulations, and their efficacy closely monitored at all times. Pain manage- ment, and a seemingly better quality of life, with complete rehabilitation, are some of the benefits of allopathic treatment. Millions of dollars have been spent in research to come up with treatments and potential cures of virtually every disease found
to be afflicting any human being.

A crucial difference between western and traditional medicine is the approach – the for- mer looks at a malady in isolation, focusing only on the affected body part, while the latter looks at the whole body and offers holistic remedies. Western medicine is based on the tenet that the symptoms of an illness need to be cured, while traditional medicine con- siders symptoms to be a manifestation of a body imbalance that has to be restored. The former uses highly potent, strong medicines which are a combination of chemicals, with the idea of destroying the disease, the latter opts for slow-acting, less potent medicines that are safer and devoid of side effects which will cure and also provide insights into the disease. Traditional medicine is much cheaper, and far more affordable by a larger section of the population besides be- ing easily available, compared to its western counterpart that is expensive and not easily obtainable especially in remote, rural areas.

International Acceptance and Impetus from government

In the last couple of decades, traditional and herbal treatments have been gaining international acceptance and an increasing number of people opt for this path towards wellness, not just because it is cheaper, but also because it is safer and virtually devoid of side effects. According to a World Health Organization Bulletin, the global market for their products stands at US$ 60 billion, with 80% of Africa’s population using it in some form, 75% of Myanmar’s population resort- ing to traditional medicine treatment due to easier access, availability and affordability. Countries like China, India and the US with WHO participation, are investing substan- tial amounts of time, effort and money in research in the field.

The Myanmar Government’s National Health Policy has incorporated tradition- al medicine within the realm of treatment while also encouraging service and research in the field. The four-year Health Plans have also included traditional healthcare services into the mainstream of the health program. The Health Ministry has a separate Depart- ment of Traditional Medicine that looks into formal education in the field, has set up 14 Traditional Medicine hospitals and 237 clin- ics, and ensures distribution of traditional medicine kits in states and districts. There are over 9000 registered traditional med- icine practitioners in the country, though only 1612 have degrees from public institu- tions. Mandalay has a full-fledged Universi- ty of Traditional Medicine and eight herbal gardens have been developed, the largest being the 196-acre National Herbal Park in Naypyitaw that boasts of over 500 different species including some rare ones.

Method of Traditional Medicine Treatment

Myanmar’s system of using traditional medicines for healing shows the influence of Buddhist philosophy, Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic concepts due to its proximity to India, and the pro- longed Indian influence during British Rule.

The system believes that the human body can be afflicted with 96 different diseases, and these are all treatable by using dried and fresh, roots, herbs, flowers, barks, leaves and stems. Medicines can be prescribed for cough and cold, fever, malaria, heart ail- ments, stomach ulcers, kidney stones, besides pain killers both mild, and strong.

There are various methods practiced for healing with traditional medicines, but the principal components of this system of treat- ment include the following:

  1. The Desana System- Based on the tenets of Buddhism, this system follows the natural course of life and treats ailments through diet modifications and use of herbs and mineral compounds on the basis of their therapeutic qual- ities.
  2. The Bethizza System- This system closely follows the principles of Indian traditional medicine, namely Ayurveda. It
    helps to restore any imbalance in the body by finding the right balance between the three main doshas, in the body, namely Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. The treatment involves use of mineral compounds and herbal extracts.
  3. The Astrological or Netkhatta System – This system seeks to cure illnesses on the basis of the patient’s astrological chart, the date and time of birth, the position of planets and stars. The suggested diet is based on these astrological calculations.
  4. The Vezzadara System- Alchemic practices and meditation form the foundation of this system. It involves techniques of converting heavy metals into inert substances
    by killing processes to acquire su- pernatural power. Thus poisonous substances like arsenic, and metals like mercury and lead go through a series of chemical processes and are combined with other compounds to make drugs that heal and cure.

Manufacture of Traditional Medicines

Herbal concoctions as home remedies are prepared by hundreds of families, based on knowledge passed on from generation to generation. On a mass scale traditional med- icines are manufactured by both the public and private sector. The public sector units come under the purview of the Department of Traditional Medicine which ensures that GMP (good manufacturing practices) stan- dards are followed. The private sector units export a large amount of their production. FAME is the largest and only well known manufacturer in the private sector.

Popularly Used Herbs
Traditional medicine uses plants and herbs to make powders, gels and tablets for treat- ing disease and body disorders. These are known to have no side effects, and in case they do not benefit the patient, they do no harm either, and are hence considered safe.

A wide variety of plants and herbs with spe- cific therapeutic qualities are used for mak- ing medicines, ideally using every part of the plant. Herbalists follow an elaborate meth- od of collecting plants, and not in a random manner. Myanmar is home to some very rare plants and every effort is made not to make them extinct. Cultivation of these and other plants is picking up in the government sponsored herb gardens in the country.

Some of the herbs used include the following:

  1. Asiatic Penny Wort- This wild plant grows in wet places and is partic- ularly useful for treating impaired memory and eye diseases. The whole plant is crushed into a powder, and used with honey to improve memo- ry, while powdered leaves used with honey and milk helps cure eye dis- eases.
  2. Sweet flag – This aromatic herb grows in streams and ponds, im- mersed in mud. The rhizome is used to treat indigestion and colic and is administered with honey.
  3. Neem – With its antifungal proper- ties this phyto-medicine is partic- ularly useful for skin diseases and is made into cream and used as an antibacterial, antifungal treatment.
  4. Tamarind- Known as a cleansing fruit, it helps improve digestion and a sore throat, besides serving as a mild laxative.
  5. Ginger – An excellent remedy for digestive disorders, it is used in its fresh and dried form to treat nausea, colic, and general indigestion.
  6. Blue evergreen hydrangea- Known by the local name Yin Pya Myit, this is 25 times more potent than quinine and therefore, highly effective as an anti-malarial treatment.
  7. Sweet broom weed – This plant con- tains amellin which is effectively used in the treatment of diabetes.

Myanmar is at the crossroads of rapid growth and development. The need of the hour is to improve its health care system, make medical aid available in its backward and remote rural areas, so as to improve the quality of life of its people. Western medi- cine is not easily available and remains of- ten unaffordable by a large section of the population. While it remains the treatment of the last resort, it requires the constant balancing of cure and side effects. Hence, it makes sense to turn to traditional medi- cine for smaller ailments that are treatable by non-intrusive herbal and natural com- pounds, which have virtually no side effects. Holistic treatment also comes only with traditional medicine. The western world de- spite its access to the best of western medi- cine is also now turning to traditional treat- ments propounded by Ayurveda and other Asian traditional treatments, so why should we not accept and adopt age old remedies and improve our health and well being?

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