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AYUSH controversy continues amidst pandemic

Ayurveda. AYUSH controversy illustration.
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The Ayurveda, homoeopathy, naturopathy, siddha, unani, and yoga (AYUSH) controversy linked to COVID-19 continues, with accusations that the Ministry of AYUSH is promulgating alternative medicine therapies with no basis in scientific facts.

The AYUSH controversy has been a fixture in some respects during this pandemic. As early as January, commentators ridiculed the AYUSH Ministry for suggesting homoeopathic and unani treatments may be effective in treatment of the disease. 

“At the instance of Ministry of AYUSH, Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy discussed the ways and means of prevention of coronavirus infection through homoeopathy in [the] 64th meeting of its scientific advisory board on 28th January, 2020,” the Ministry said in a statement at the time. While it did advise common-sense measures such as wearing a mask, the implication that alternative remedies could be effective as far as it pertains to infection with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 led to accusations of the Ministry pushing pseudoscience.

Despite the AYUSH controversy, promotion of such treatments continues. The AYUSH Ministry’s All India Institute of Ayurveda (AIIA) claimed – as reported by The Week – that

“Ayurveda interventions like Ayush kwatha and Fifatrol tabletscan be effective in mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 infection in a “very short period” with “complete regression of symptoms”. 

“Use of four Ayurveda interventions–Ayush kwatha, Sanshamanivati, Fifatrol tablets and Laxmivilasa rasanot only improved the condition of [the] COVID-19 patient but also turned therapid antigen test negative within six days of treatment, according toa case report published in the journal ofAIIA — ‘Ayurved Case Report’ in October.” 

The claims have been met with anger by some commentators. The opening paragraph of a report for Science by Priyanka Pulla published last month – headlined ‘A fraud on the nation’: critics blast Indian government’s promotion of traditional medicine for COVID-19 – read “the Indian health ministry has begun to recommend traditional remedies to tackle the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, dismaying many Indian doctors and scientists. 

“On 6 October, health minister Harsh Vardhan released recommendations for preventing COVID-19 and treating mild cases based on Ayurveda, India’s [millennia-old[ system of herbal medicine, triggering sharp criticism from the Indian Medical Association (IMA), a group of more than one-quarter of a million modern medicine practitioners.” 

Indeed, the report cites an IMA press release in which the body queried “is there satisfactory evidence regarding the claims made from studies done on COVID 19 patients based on the above criteria? If so whether [or not] the evidence is weak or moderate or strong? The evidence should be in [the] public domain and available for scientific scrutiny.” This was among a number of posers the IMA posed.

“The Union Health Minister should come clean on the above posers,” the IMA demanded. “If not he is inflicting a fraud on the nation and gullible patients by calling placebos as drugs.” 

Criticism remains forthcoming. An IndiaSpend analysis reads, in part

“The AYUSH ministry in October released recommendations to integrate “Ayurveda and Yoga interventions” into India’s national clinical management protocol for COVID-19. Among other things, it recommends tackling COVID-19 with warm water gargles, applying medicated ghee in nostrils, steam inhalation, drinking “golden milk” (hot milk with turmeric) and kadha/kashayam/kwath (hot infusion with ayurvedic herbs) combined with good diet, sleep and exercise. The clinical protocol recommends patients take ayurvedic formulations such as Ayush-64, Guduchi Ghana Vati, Guduchi with Pipalli and Asvagandha even while suffering from hypoxia (loss of oxygen in the body) and breathlessness due to COVID-19…

“…These AYUSH recommendations have upset some doctors and made frontline workers’ jobs more difficult, we found. Doctors we spoke to narrated instances of COVID-19 patients reporting late to hospitals as they were relying on Ayurvedic home remedies instead. Doctors said they noticed low platelet counts and excessive bleeding during surgeries among their patients as a result of unmonitored use of herbal remedies.” 

The publication “also studied the 253 citations referenced in the AYUSH recommendations and found deficiencies in the studies cited.” 

The world currently hedges its bets on effective therapeutics for and vaccines against the novel coronavirus. The alternative is a continued outbreak of a deadly disease on a mammoth scale. Promotion of unproven treatments is far from helpful. As such, authorities and commentators must engage in responsible conduct when discussing therapies – be they allopathic or otherwise.

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