Traditional Medicine: Snake Oil or Miracle?

Health - Saigon/HCMC: Oct. 31, 2016

Once the preserve of the poor in Vietnam, Traditional Vietnamese Medicine [TVM] has taken on a new popularity amongst the middle and upper classes of Saigon.

People are returning to traditional medicinal roots in droves, keen to experience the combination of Western medicine and the ancient practices of their ancestors.

Witch Doctors or The Future of Medicine?

TVM practitioners may seem like witch doctors to some. The idea of an unqualified mystic talking about energy and using plants to cure disease is frequently dismissed (sometimes correctly) as absurd.

The reality is somewhat more complex. Modern TVM takes elements of Western medicine and incorporates them with the treatments practiced in Vietnam for centuries. This may seem quite contradictory. Practices such as acupuncture and herbalism are often labeled placebo-effect treatments rather than proper medicinal procedures.

However, to dismiss the potential benefits of TVM would be foolish. To understand this, consider aspirin. Present in the leaves of willow trees, aspirin has in one way or another been used for pain relief for over 2,400 years. In 1763, Scientist Edward Stone completed the first successful study on an extract of aspirin as a cure for fever. Credit has been given to Felix Hoffman, a scientist at Bayer for the first chemical synthesis of Aspirin in 1897.

Today aspirin is used to treat a huge variety of ailments, from headaches to heart conditions. All this from a leaf used through the millennia by herbalists who knew that certain plants had beneficial properties.

Modern TVM doctors are trained with rigorous discipline. As Le Hoang Son, Director of the Traditional Medicine Hospital explains (on behalf of his doctors), “To become a TVM doctor in Vietnam, a student needs seven and a half years to six year to study and 18 months to practice in hospital to get the license.”

Southern vs Northern TVM

Photo by Phoebe

It’s important to make the distinction between souther TVM (Thuoc Nam) and northern TVM (Thuoc Bac), which is more akin to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).

Southern TVM, unlike northern TVM, is more based on the use of fresh herbs than reductions and tinctures. Primarily focused on herbalism, with a combination of plant-based cures and noninvasive procedures, it is somewhat more benign than its northern cousin. In extremely rare cases silkworms may be used, but plants are by far the most common medicinal source.

There is also a marked difference in the botany of the regions, with the plants of the north more similar to those found in China than the South, and some variance in the types of diseases experienced between regions.

The Godfather of Modern TV

If modern TVM - that is the combination of Western and traditional medicine - can be ascribed to anyone, it is probably Nguyen Van Be (or “Ong Ba Dat Phen”- meaning, roughly, “Man in the second position in the family on the Acid Land”).

“Ong Ba” fought in the American War. During his service he developed a fascination for herbalism as a solution to the lack of medicine in war-torn rural areas. Due to his interest in medicine, the government sent him to the North to study Western medicine. He studied hard, graduated with merit and returned to Ho Chi Minh City to continue his medical studies at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy. It was here that he began his studies in the capabilities of plants to cure snake poison, not a new concept but one which Ong Ba had been sceptical of until this point.

Hidden Risks of TVM's New-found Popularity

Modern TVM’s popularity amongst Vietnam’s middle and upper classes makes sense, it takes the best of both worlds and seems to be making great headway in delivering provable results.

However, this has led to less well-off Vietnamese getting their medical advice and treatment from pharmacies, which in turn has led to a rise in the use of antibiotics for even minor ailments. There are serious negative implications therein, such as an increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics which, combined with a lack of funding for new antibiotics, could lead to a rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases.

TVM vs Western Medicine

While the empiricism and scientific processes behind Western medicine are central to their effectiveness, it is absurd to imagine that all alternative medicines are ineffective. Traditional remedies, if considered effective for the treatment of any ailment should be put through the rigours of Western empirical study to ascertain their effectiveness. With so many people dying of disease every day we should be doing more to finding cures in unorthodox areas.

Le Hoang Son explains: “Each type of medicine - Western and TVM - has its own advantages. Western medicine is good in acute diseases and surgery, while TVM has strong points in chronic diseases. Besides, [traditional medicinal] herbs were used for a long time and are popular ingredients in daily meals (ginger, garlic, etc.). Moreover, TVM has many non-drug treatments (acupuncture, acupressure, Yoga, and others) that are effective and affordable.”

By combining the disciplines of East and West, it is possible we could be able to cure any number of diseases. It may just require a little more cooperation and a little less cynicism.