Vies Differ on Use of Herbal Medicines To Treat Malaria

By Corinne Purtill
The Cambodia Daily

An ancient approach to malaria treatment grows amid the lush foliage of the herbal medicine garden behind the National Center for Traditional Medicine.

On a sunny afternoon last month, director Hieng Punley proudly showed off those plants among the garden’s 300 specimens that have been used to treat the disease by traditional healers.

Usually found in mountain forests, Brucea javanica is a long-branched, spindly tree, the roots of which can be boiled to make a malaria antidote. Eurycoma longifolia, a fern with flat, kelly-green leaves that grows in tropical climes throughout Asia, has roots that can also be used to treat the disease.

Those two species are among the 40 to 50 native plants in Cambodia that can be used to treat malaria, Hieng Punley said, though some health experts caution more research is needed before their use can be condoned.

While claims that herbal treatments can cure viruses such as hepatitis or AIDS are false, he said, in the case of a disease like malaria, traditional medicine “can be [as effective] as pharmacy drugs,” he said.

The use of traditional medicine to combat malaria is gaining prestige in Asia and other parts of the world. Organizations including the UN Children’s Fund, the World Bank and the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have embraced the use of artemisinin, a Chinese herbal drug derived from the sweet wormwood plant, as an effective combatant against the disease.

While the National Malaria Center recognizes artemisinin as an approved malaria treatment, no Cambodian-made herbal drugs are yet ready to market, said center director Duong Socheat on Wednesday. 

“This is not agreeable to the program,” Duong Socheat said. Not enough empirical research and analysis has been done on Cambodian herbs to be able to recommend their treatment, he said.

Hieng Punley is hoping to change that. The center has already sent more than 600 samples of various plants to laboratories in Australia, Canada, the US and France, to be analyzed for their chemical content and possible application against a wide range of ailments.

If proper analysis was done, Duong Socheat said, it would be possible for the malaria center to recommend certain herbal treatments to help villagers living in areas where malaria is present but access to modern drugs are limited.

Hieng Punley has spent years photographing and cataloging the various medicinal plants found throughout Cambodia. In thick binders stacked on the desk in his office, loose-leaf pages hold photographs and written biographies about each
plant. 

He hopes to publish the reference book one day, a project that would cost $10,000, he said. But that, like many of the center’s plans, is stymied by a lack of funds.