GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the herb shop run by Murad Helou, hundreds of different herbs can be found. Helou's shop is located in al-Zawiyah market in the center of Gaza City, and it only takes a few minutes for herbal prescriptions to be prepared.
Helou, 62, who never went to college, has been practicing what is known as herbalism since he was 14. He learned the profession from his father, who in turn learned it from his grandfather.
Helou told Al-Monitor about a patient who had just bought an herbal medicine to get rid of his intestinal parasites. “He resorted to an herbal solution to get rid of the worms that are causing him constant abdominal pain and anemia in the long run, as he could not afford to buy expensive chemical drugs sold at the pharmacies.” Helou said that more and more patients are visiting his shop to buy herbal medicine.
He explained that the herbal medicine he prepared for the customer cost him about $1 and is a powder made of pumpkin seeds, garlic and carrot seed paper. The powder should be added to 1 liter (4 cups) of boiling water and drunk hot. “Having this hot drink on a daily basis for two weeks will certainly kill all the parasites,” Helou confidently said.
Amid the deteriorating economy caused by the ongoing Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007 and the high levels of poverty and unemployment, herbal trade has become popular as people cannot afford expensive chemical drugs and would rather opt for cheap herbs. The unemployment rate in Gaza amounts to 41.2%, according to official statistics issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2016.
Homemaker Fatima Sukar said she came to the busy al-Zawiyah market to buy an herbal formula that could help her produce milk to feed her 2-month-old baby, as she is not producing enough milk herself.
Sukar told Al-Monitor, “My husband is poor and works intermittently in the construction field, and he can barely make about 500 shekels [$133] a month at best; two-thirds of this pays for the rent of our little house. So we cannot afford infant formula boxes that cost about 20 shekels [$5] each and last for only 10 days. Breastfeeding is an economic choice for us.”
She said that one of her neighbors advised her to visit an herb seller to find an herbal formula that can help her.
Herb shops are more frequently visited in winter when patients seek treatment for colds, flus and respiratory diseases, which are treated with various herbs such as chamomile, anise, ginger and sage.
Mahmoud Sheikh Ali, the director of the Ibn Nafees Center for medicinal plants and dietary supplements in Gaza City, told Al-Monitor, “The medical and herbal prescriptions can treat dozens of diseases, including gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, impotence, hair loss, hepatitis and heart diseases.”
Sheikh Ali, who received a master’s degree in medical nutrition therapy from Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that what distinguishes herbal medicines from chemical drugs is that they are derived from nature and can enhance immunity. He stressed that Palestine is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of herbs. “Palestine is home to 2,800 types of medicinal herbal plants, but there is no local interest in maintaining these herbs through the establishment of nature reserves, which has led to the extinction of a large number of herbal species,” he said.
He added, “There is a plant called cardoon with a purple flower that grows in winter. When this plant dries up, its flower turns into small dry beans containing a serum that is deemed as the best cure for hepatitis C, but there is unfortunately no interest to develop this treatment.”
Sheikh Ali said that the lack of local interest in herbs has led herb sellers to import herbs from several countries, notably India and Egypt.
Taha al-Shanti, the manager of the licensing department at the Ministry of Health in Gaza, said that although the ability of herbs to cure diseases has not been scientifically proven, a large number of patients, especially the poor, traditionally resort to herbs as they believe that natural medicines are better for the human body than chemical drugs.
Shanti told Al-Monitor that herb sellers should be fully aware of the herb composition. They should have a degree in herbalism, similar to pharmacists and medical nutritionists, to evaluate herbal compositions and their impact on the human body. According to Shanti, only 10% of herb sellers responsible for medical prescriptions are specialized herbalists, which raises questions about the effectiveness and safety of their prescriptions.
He noted that the Ministry of Health does not grant herb sellers any licenses to practice herbal medicine, as herb shops do not fall under the category of medical institutions and are commercial shops for the sale of herbs. This means that herb sellers who have no college degrees in the field and make up herbal prescriptions are illegal.
Article 31 of Chapter V of Public Health Law No. 20 of 2004 prohibits “any engagement in acts or crafts that affect public health or the environment, except in cases where there is a written approval from the ministry.”
Although the Ministry of Health prohibits herb sellers from making and selling herbal medicine to citizens and imposes punitive measures that may force herb sellers to shut down their shops should they expose the life of any patients to danger, Shanti said, “Citizens are increasingly attracted by these shops, which led the Ministry of Health to be less strict in the application of punitive measures that include imprisonment and fines.”
On the ground, it does not seem that the punitive measures taken by the Ministry of Health against herb sellers who offer herbal prescriptions has affected this practice. The local community firmly believes that herbal medicine is a better option for the public health and the citizen’s pockets.
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