Rise in traditional Iranian medicine as the Covid crisis grows

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In recent months, as the coronavirus ravaged Iran, more and more people came to 200-year-old Ahmad Karbalaei’s home attari, a shop selling traditional herbal remedies, seeking help.

One of its medicines is named after Imam Kazim, an infallible imam of Shia Muslims, and is recommended by the clergy. It includes red sugar, mastic, and fennel and is mixed with honey before being taken. Another is based on a prescription from Avicenna, a famous 10th century Persian physician, and includes sweet violet, horse mint, thyme, and crowned fern.

“About fifty people on average come to this store every day to ask or buy medicine from Imam Kazim. The demand is very high, ”said Mr. Karbalaei, the owner of the attari. He generally recommends the one based on Avicenna, which was taught to him as an asthma treatment by a 70-year-old patient half a century ago. “Now I sell it to coronavirus patients.”

The growing demand for traditional medicines has sparked controversy, although it reflects frustration with conventional medicine during the pandemic.

More than 54,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Iran, making it one of the worst-affected countries in the region. President Hassan Rouhani has warned of the difficulties Iran will face in accessing the vaccine. He assured the Iranians that his government would buy vaccines from foreign companies and produce them in the country despite US sanctions, which he said had “brutally” limited the country’s access to drugs under the pandemic.

“We will overcome the problems at all costs “but” people must know that whatever we do, every time we want to import drugs, equipment or vaccines, we curse Trump, ”he said.

Ahmad Karbalaei has benefited from growing demand during the pandemic © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

Many Iranians feel frustrated with conventional medicine © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

One of the oldest medicines in the world, along with Ayurvedic and Chinese treatments, Persian medicine was suppressed during the Pahlavi dynasty.

After the 1979 revolution that saw the overthrow of this dynasty and established the theocratic state, the Islamic Republic began to encourage traditional medicine more than a decade ago. Medical students were able to specialize in it – once they received general medical training – and around 420 traditional doctors are licensed to treat patients.

“Traditional medicine is deeply rooted in our culture, as our parents give us herbal remedies from childhood in addition to chemical drugs,” said Dr Roja Rahimi, vice-dean of research affairs at the Persian Faculty of Medicine. affiliated with Tehran University of Medical Sciences.

Persian medicine focuses on creating internal balance by combining “hot” and “cold” ingredients. Lamb, considered hot, is recommended to prevent a deadly virus that would survive longer in cold environments. Sales of hot herbs such as those from the mint family have also increased.

But the popularity of these drugs proved controversial at the start of the pandemic when Abbas Tabrizian, a clergyman, said sweet violet oil could cure Covid-19. He set fire to Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, an American textbook, causing an uproar across Iran.

“This approach is a deep fanaticism whereby everything is linked to Islam and imams,” said Nasrin, a 55-year-old retiree. “What this man said about sweet violet oil was absolutely ridiculous, but what he did to Harrison’s book was utterly outrageous.”

Dr Roja Rahimi: “Traditional medicine is deeply rooted in our culture” © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

Persian medicine focuses on creating an internal balance by combining “hot” and “cold” ingredients © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

Fatemeh, a 47-year-old nurse from Tehran, said her religious husband only took a sip of Imam Kazim’s medicine when he was infected with coronavirus. “But almost immediately he got a rash all over his body,” she says.

Yet there are many who swear by the treatment. A cleric from the holy city of Qom said traditional medicine had cured him. “Modern medicine has no solution for the coronavirus, but this drug has so far proven to be the best and has saved me and many other people,” he said.

Health officials have made it clear that they do not recognize what the clergy call Islamic medicine, resisting initiatives by some clergy to treat patients. Kianush Jahanpur, head of public relations at the Ministry of Health, said “folk medicine” and “superstitions” would not be acceptable.

“The Persian medical school has over 3,000 years of history,” he said. “While the Ministry of Health will resist radical behavior, we recognize the cultural and scientific heritage as an invaluable asset and will contribute to its development.”

At the Persian School of Medicine, there is a lot of hope for the future. “The future belongs to integrative medicine whereby students attend medical schools and learn modern medicine while developing their knowledge of classical medicine whether Persian, Chinese or Indian,” said Dr Mehrdad Karimi, vice-dean for international affairs at the center. “This is just the beginning.”

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