CURWOOD: For thousands of years, residents of Thailand used medicinal remedies based on herbs and plants that grew wild in their forests. But soon after the Second World War, the Thai government discouraged this form of healing in favor of a more Western approach to medicine that included pharmaceuticals. Some so-called folk doctors were even arrested. But as Anne Marie Ruff reports, traditional healing is making a comeback in Thailand, and now it has government support.
(Water pours; ambient conversation)
RUFF: A solar heater brews medicinal tea at a small clinic in northern Thailand, where the future of the country's health system is taking a cue from its past. At this clinic, patients can choose to be treated by Western-style doctors or traditional Thai healers. Traditional healers offer herbal medicines that they mix themselves. Massage and herbal sauna are also offered. Ratana Sabuathong works at the clinic. She explains the reason the Thai government is now allowing traditional medicine here is simple: it's cheap.
Sabuathong: [Speaks in Thai]
TRANSLATOR: If you come here, this is more than 100 baht for the medicine. But if you go to the Western-style clinic it will be about 3 to 400 baht.
RUFF: That is the equivalent of about eight to ten dollars, compared to about two-fifty for traditional medicine. This economic incentive is making an impression on the Thai government. In the last year, five traditional herbal remedies have been added to the government's list of essential drugs. That means they can now be prescribed in government hospitals and covered by insurance. A new government program is training and licensing traditional healers. There are even plans for a hospital that will use only traditional medicine. Ratana Sabuathong thinks this is just the beginning.
Sabuathong: [Speaks in Thai]
RUFF: She says: I think there will be more places like this, because lots of people come to see our clinic, to see how to do their own.
Nowhere is the economic rationale for traditional medicine more obvious than in the case of Thailand's one million people with HIV and AIDS. Treating them all with anti-retroviral, or ARV, drugs, would cost nearly $10 billion a year. Even government-produced generic versions of these drugs are beyond the reach of many. Dr. Krisana is the director of research and development for Thailand's government pharmaceutical organization. She has led a government effort to research which traditional herbal medicines might help AIDS patients.
KRISANA: I am doing this for poor people, very, very poor, who cannot afford at all and who cannot get the free job from the commons, so that they will have alternative. They have another choice.
RUFF: These herbal cocktails cost about $25 a month, several times less than even generic ARV drugs. While herbal remedies don't attack the AIDS virus itself as ARV drugs do, they are believed to boost the immune system and treat secondary infections without severe side effects. Dr. Krisana says the results of clinical trials have been promising.
KRISANA: The quality of life of the herbal product users are more than ARV drug users, because they don't have any elements. They don't have fever, they don't have diarrhea. So the quality of life is just perfect.
RUFF: The political about-face toward traditional medicine could provide a new conservation imperative, both for Thailand's traditional knowledge and its biodiversity. New legislation calls for areas rich in medicinal plants to be set aside as preserves, with strict regulations on how they can be used. But critics charge the government's policy is only skin deep. They fear policy makers are aiming to substitute herbal remedies for expensive pharmaceuticals without understanding that traditional medicine is more than just pills. Massage, sauna, diet, and even spiritual beliefs are all brought to bear by traditional healers.
(Local music; ambient voices)
RUFF: In a hill tribe village, musicians perform a blessing ceremony for visitors. The government may have new respect for the healers here, but critics say the drive to legalize traditional medicine will likely exclude practitioners in minority villages such as this one. Because many hill tribe people cannot speak Thai, they're unable to complete the necessary paperwork to be licensed.
(Nung Peng speaks in Hmong)
RUFF: Nung Peng and her husband Jong Jeur are somewhere between 110 and 115 years old, as near as they can figure. She says for many years she was the herbalist here in her ethnic Hmong village in the mountains of northern Thailand. She treated people for malaria, smallpox, and other illnesses. Her medicines came from the plants in the surrounding forests. But now she is too old to venture into the forest to find plants to relieve the pain in her arthritic knees, and the herbalists who have come after her don't have as much knowledge as she does. For Nung Peng the new legitimacy of traditional medicine has come too late. Without anyone skilled enough to find herbs for her, she has had to settle for Western medicine to treat her arthritis.
NUNG PENG: [speaks in Hmong]
RUFF: She says: Western medicine works more quickly than herbal medicine, but it only works on the surface. It doesn't treat the disease deeply, like our herbal medicine.
But Nung Peng's six surviving children may reap the benefits of the government's change of heart.
(Local music, voices)
RUFF: For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff in northern Thailand.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: the environmental impact of California's energy deregulation debacle. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.
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