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Syrians resort to herbal medicine amid drug crisis

The deteriorating living conditions in northwestern Syria and the expensive medical consultations and medicines have prompted Syrian patients to resort to herbal medicine to treat their diseases.
A Syrian beekeeper prepares medicine to inject into hives at a bee farm in the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, Oct. 2, 2016. Honey is used as a homoeopathic treatment for burns and wounds.

Following the price increase of medicines in the opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria, many Syrians have started resorting to herbal medicine to treat diseases. The Syrian regime’s Ministry of Health has raised prices twice in the past months — most recently in February.

Abu Abd al-Rahman from Idlib countryside has been a herbal medicine specialist for 18 years. “Herbal medicine is an alternative for modern scientific medicine, and it cannot be ignored. Over the past couple of years, demand for herbal medicine has significantly increased,” he told Al-Monitor.

He attributed the reasons for the increasing demand to the expensive doctor consultations and overpriced medicines that do not take into account the difficult living conditions in the area. He said that alternative medicine — medicinal herbs, natural ointments, cupping and acupuncture — succeeds in treating some pathological conditions and outperforms modern medicine.

Abd al-Rahman noted, “I have treated many diseases — even chronic ones such as diabetes, disc disease and heart disease — and patients have found positive results.”

He said he does not charge for a consultation, but only for the herbs he needs to make the medicine. “It’s relatively cheap and it does not have the same dangerous side effects of chemical drugs on the body.”

Abd al-Rahman added, “I sometimes struggle to find many medicinal herbs because we are confined in a small area in northwestern Syria and I cannot get the variety of herbs available throughout the country. Some herbs are seasonal and others are difficult to grow in a mountainous environment such as Idlib, and foresters sometimes charge a lot for such herbs.”

Fatima al-Mohammed, a 40-year-old Idlib resident, resorted to herbal medicine to treat her disc injuries since she could no longer afford painkillers.

“I had a bad fall after which I began to feel lower back pain that later extended to my leg. I could no longer feel my leg and the pain was so unbearable I could not walk or even sleep,” she told Al-Monitor.

Mohammed said, “I saw two doctors. The first gave me medicine, injections and painkillers, but nothing worked. Then one day, I was taken to another doctor by ambulance. After the CT scan, he scheduled an urgent surgical procedure because I had a slipped disc in my lower back. But I did not do the surgery because I could not afford it, and I was afraid of the possible post-surgery complications and pain.”

She noted, “Some family members told me to see a herbal medicine specialist, so I did and he gave me a natural recipe consisting of a mixture of ginger oil and melted lamb fat, to rub and massage the pain area with. He also gave me nervine tonics and taught me some back exercises to do at home.”

Mohammed added, “Within a month and a half of starting the treatment, my condition improved by 80%; the pain has disappeared, and I no longer need surgery.”

An otolaryngologist who works in a private hospital in Idlib told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Patients who cannot afford medicines and those who suffer from certain diseases that can be treated with herbs and natural ointments, such as coughing, bronchitis and kidney pain, are usually the ones who resort to herbal medicine.”

He said, “Despite the advantages of herbal medicine, which gained patients' trust recently, herbal treatments are often long and do not provide fast recovery as modern drugs do.”

Hassan Ibrahim, director of the Azaz Health Directorate affiliated with the Syrian opposition in the northern countryside of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “The benefits of alternative medicine and its effectiveness in curing some diseases cannot be denied. However, there are chronic diseases that require medical examinations and accurate diagnosis, and their treatment can only be managed through modern scientific medicine with the necessary chemical drugs or surgery.”

Speaking about the expensive consultations and medicines, which are the main reason for patients resorting to alternative medicine, Ibrahim said, “The Health Directorate is seeking to organize and unify prices in the coming months, in cooperation with the directorates in other areas. There will be a list that determines the price of consultations suitable for every medical specialty.”

He noted, “About 80% of the medicines consumed in northwest Syria are produced by the regime’s government laboratories, so any increase in drug prices is the Syrian regime’s fault. Meanwhile, 10% are produced locally within the opposition areas, and 10% are imported from Turkey.”

Ibrahim concluded, “The Health Directorate imposed several measures to control drug prices in pharmacies and warehouses, and will soon launch an electronic application available to everyone in order to reveal the price of each drug to prevent price manipulation.”

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