In response to outbreaks of dengue fever in Tamil Nadu, the state government has distributed — free of charge — a herbal concoction they claim not only cures the disease, but also prevents it.
The herbal remedy ‘nilavembu kudineer’, has been given to 8.63 lakh people this year in the Government Siddha Medical College Hospital (GSMCH) alone. The concoction has been pushed by the state government as an effective remedy. This has extended to the distribution of the remedy to the public at street corners, bus stops and railway stations.
Setting a dangerous precedent, the Ministry of AYUSH does not suggest visiting a registered medical practitioner when facing symptoms consistent with dengue fever. Instead recommending Siddha treatments such as nilavembu kudineer.
The effects of nilavembu kudineer are highly disputed, with many doctors protesting such widespread use of the remedy by the state government without citing adequate research to prove its benefits.
The Tamil Nadu state government has justified the use of the herbal remedy based on a small scale study conducted in 2015. The study has been widely criticised as using inappropriate methodology.
As a case controlled study, the design of the experiment is suitable to understand potential risk factors of a disease, though not for testing the protective, preventive or therapeutic effect of a drug or medicinal herb claims Vijayprasad Gopichandran, assistant professor of community medicine at ESIC Medical College.
Contrary to the belief by the Ministry of AYUSH and the Tamil Nadu state government that the concoction is beneficial, some side effects may be extreme.
One of the active ingredients of the herbal remedy, andrographis paniculata, was cited by a 2014 study as capable of transiently terminating spermatogenesis (ceasing production of sperm) in male rats, as well as having a contraceptive effect on female rats. This is a significant side effect that if occurring in a standard medication, would likely see it barred from use.
The same study does note potential medical benefits of the compound in treating infection and reducing inflammation. However, with such significant side effects, further study is vital before releasing the compound for public use. To use the compound as part of a remedy that is now seeing widespread public use could cause more harm than good.
“People should not believe in baseless rumours that Nilavembu kashayam will cause side effects. This herbal medicine has been tested well and used widely in many countries” says State health minister Dr Vijayabaskar, denying the side effects, despite the study.
The minister also said that action would be taken against those spreading these rumours via social media. This is an alarming claim, insinuating legal repercussions for doubting an unfounded herbal remedy. He adds that social media must be made to support the government actions and spread positive information.
Tamil Nadu needs an effective and proven means of treating and preventing dengue fever. Advising against seeking out a doctor and administering an unproven herbal remedy is distracting government resources from funding an actual preventative measure. Threatening legal measures against those that spread “misinformation” is a concerning prospect.