Friday, March 19, 1999 Published at 00:04 GMT
World: South Asia
Indian 'cure' for Hepatitis B
Modern drugs may be replaced by a traditional medical remedy
Rashmee Ahmed of the BBC's Asia and Pacific Region reports
An Indian medicinal plant may be one of the most effective ways of treating disorders caused by the Hepatitis B virus, according to new research.
Clinical trials using a drug based on the Keezhanali plant were conducted at the University of Madras in South India and the Scottish Centre for Infection in Glasgow.
The results are believed to be better than any drug so far used to treat Hepatitis B - which is more than 100 times more infectious than HIV.
Researchers say Keezhanali - or Phyllanthus Amarus to use its botanical name - stopped the Hepatitis B virus from multiplying and cleared up symptoms within a month in 30% of all cases they studied.
They said that the drug rendered the virus non-infective in more than half the remaining cases.
Hepatitis B is common in Asia, particularly in the sub-continent and China, and traditional Indian medical practice has long-standing methods for its treatment.
Dr S Thiagrajan, who began the research nearly two decades ago, says he was guided by Ayurvedic and other Indian medicine systems.
"This plant has been used conventionally in folklore medicine as a paste for treating jaundice cases. So about 20 years ago, when I was doing my PhD programme, we wanted to scientifically look at this particular plant," said Dr Thiagrajan.
"At that point of time, we had Hepatitis B as an easier viral model for studying in the lab. That is why we took it up and we had good convincing evidence by in-vitro studies that this plant extract is able to inactivate the virus," he added.
According to Dr Thiagranjan, the new drug scores over the two main drugs used to treat the virus - Lamuvidime and Interferon - because it is highly affordable and does not have the usual side-effects such as aches and pains and hair loss.
Hepatitis B virus has long been called the silent killer - silent because it is much less talked about than HIV, the virus that causes Aids.
But despite the lack of publicity, the statistics for Hepatitis B are fairly well-known.
According to World Health Organisation estimates, 2,000m people have been infected by it at some time and 350m are chronically infected.
These are alarming figures, compared to just 34m for Aids.
The new drug is expected to be put on the Indian market by early next year, after which it will move to pharmaceutical counters around the world.