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Friday, November 7, 1997 Published at 17:15 GMT

Vietnam's new approach to drugs

For hundreds of years, the people of Vietnam have used opium as a sedative and cure-all, and addiction, especially in rural areas, is common. But only in the last twenty years has the use of heroin, refined from opium, become a problem, especially in the cities. Now, however, there are signs of a possible surprise advance in confronting heroin addiction and the massive problems that go with it. By using traditional herbal medicines, the Vietnamese believe they may have found a quick and simple cure. And they've won some powerful international support in their new venture. Keith Graves has been to Vietnam to investigate...

The drug rehabilitation centre at Hoa Binh, a two-hour drive north of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, is an unlikely spot to find an experiment being carried out that could prove to be a major breakthrough in the treatment of drug addiction. The centre lies down a dirt track on the edge of a village. The gates are locked. The surrounding ten-foot high rough concrete wall is daubed with lurid paintings and slogans that, although written in Vietnamese, leave no doubt about their meaning. With accompanying pictures, one message says drugs are the highway to hell.

Until recently the Hoa Binh centre was the refuge of, and last resort for, addicts. If the "cold turkey" method of weaning them off drugs by denying them access failed to work, and it seldom did, they faced an early death. But now Hoa Binh has become a place of hope where addicts come voluntarily seeking a cure for their addiction in the firm belief that there is one thanks to a black, sticky liquid that has been given the name of Heantos - a play on the words "heat of the sun."

It's the invention of Dr Tran Khuong Dan, one of Vietnam's foremost herbalists. Ten years ago, his father became addicted to opium and has since died. Mr Tran set out to find a cure for addiction using traditional ingredients - leaves and roots and tree bark. He travelled the length and breadth of his country where many people still swear by herbal cures over more modern medicines, collecting recipes from other herbalists. Then he set about finding the right mix. As he tells it, he made himself dependent first on opium, and then on heroin. And when he broke his addiction, he knew he had succeeded in his quest.

Dr Tran took his recipe to the National Centre for Natural Sciences in Hanoi where the mix of thirteen herbs and root extracts - some as common as ginger, liquorice and cinnamon, others rare ingredients only found in the remoter parts of the country - were refined into the black liquid and given the name Heantos.

It has, for the past six months, been in regular use at the Hoa Binh centre where the results appear to be quite remarkable. When I visited the centre, the doctor in charge introduced a group of 20 patients, 18 men and two women, admitted three months earlier. Half were addicted to opium, half to heroin. They had completed the Heantos course and all 20 claimed they were no longer dependent on drugs. They certainly showed none of the usual symptoms and were soon to be released.

The day I first visited, two young addicts were admitted. They had all the obvious symptoms and one of them had, from the black lines under the skin, clearly been injecting deadly opium residue. Their five-day course of heantos, administered orally three times a day, started immediately. When I returned some days later, they appeared and claimed to be normal and were working in the centre's garden.

Now this could easily be dismissed as quackery - except for the fact that the United Nations Development Programme is so impressed that it's backing a three-year research project by the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical Research Centre and the Medical College of Virginia Drug Dependency Centre in the United States. Lutz Baehr, a United Nations international project co-ordinator, who now divides his time between New York and Vietnam, says he's witnessed the effectiveness of Heantos many times. He doesn't understand how it works, but when he sees how ineffective are cures offered in industrialised countries and the effectiveness of the herbal cure, he is convinced it is worth pursuing.

The project has the backing of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, because he believes it is important for the Third World - "recipient nations" in UN jargon - to be able to offer something back to the donor nations of the industrialised world.

It will be a long time yet before that happens - even if heantos does live up to the hopes and expectations being pinned on it - because it will have to undergo very lengthy tests and stringent research on animals, not least to discover any possible long-term effects, before it could even be tested on human beings, never mind be put into general use. But as far as the patients at the Hoa Binh centre in Vietnam are concerned, there is nothing to prove.

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