Can Swine Flu Virus Be Tamed By Yin and Yang?
By Ann Chang
Can a $3 bag of herbal tea help prevent swine flu? The people working at the N.Y Tung Ren Tang shop on Flushing’s Main Street seem to believe so.
“Banlangua,” the name of the popular selling tea, was able to help Chinese people during the SARS epidemic “filter out the virus,” explained a store assistant, gesturing to a package of pungent smelling tea bags. It would have a similar effect with treating the H1N1 virus, he believes.
Other herbologists in the neighborhood disagree. Andy Lam, an unlicensed practitioner at Hai Xuan Inc., another Main Street Chinese medicine shop, recommends patients take something at the high end to fight the swine flu. Holding a brightly blue package of herbal tablets called “Li gin,” Lam touts the healing powers of the tablets that he says can fight off swine flu by making a person’s immune system stronger. The cost? $85 for 60 tablets.
It’s an imprecise science, knowing which medication to choose, a reality faced by many Chinese immigrants who use these shops on Flushing’s main commercial thoroughfare regularly. While $85 for medication recommended by an unlicensed practitioner may seem like a steep price to pay, some local residents are not taking any chances. Just this past May, Queens was the center of a swine flu epidemic that killed a local school administrator, closed down several schools and sickened hundreds of people. For the approximately 87,450 Chinese who live in Flushing, language barriers and high costs of treatments at Western medical clinics leaves some with few alternatives then to use these traditional Chinese medicine businesses. For those unemployed or here illegally, traditional Chinese medicine shops may become their only option for dealing with swine flu when it hits.
The large market and demand for Chinese herbs is likely to attract individuals with little to no formal medical training into the business of selling and dealing Chinese herbs. According to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, as of September 2009, only 99 registered acupuncturists and Chinese herbologists run businesses in Flushing, a number that doesn’t reflect Flushing’s many unaccredited Chinese medicine businesses that are at times no larger than a single-person operation in someone’s living room.
Not everyone is turned off by the lack of accredited employees running these businesses, however. Wui Liang, a 29 year-old who frequently purchases and uses Chinese medicine, is optimistic the healing potential of Chinese medicine outweighs the risks.
“It may not be scientifically proven, but I think Chinese medicine does work, it’s got a history that goes back for thousands of years. The medicine must be doing something right in order for it to be passed on for so many generations,” said Liang.
Ancient Chinese philosophy stipulates that illness is caused by a disruption of a person’s yin and yang. When both yin and yang are balanced, a person is healthy. When disrupted, the person becomes ill and has to take herbs to restore the balance.
Liang said he used to have a problem with his yang, which manifested with frequent nosebleeds. Chinese medicine helped them disappear.
“I used to have this hot drink in Chinese medicine made out of rhinoceros horn shavings and sugar. When I drank it I used to feel better, I would cough less and wouldn’t break out into fevers or nosebleeds as often as I would,” Liang said.
Liang believes that swine flu is also caused by an imbalance of a person’s yin and yang, something that Chinese medicine can help restore.
University of Medicine and Dentistry, New Jersey medical student, David Chen, 26, whose grandfather worked as a Chinese herbalist, is more skeptical of Chinese medicines’ supposed healing powers, especially towards flu viruses.
“Since swine flu is primarily transmitted by contact with respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing, by the time someone realizes they are sick they are already contagious,” said Chen. “So it is less likely that Chinese medicines will have a significant effect on contagiousness. It may even give people the false impression that they are not infectious when they really are.”
He warned consumers to use caution with traditional Chinese medicines, just as they should with any medication. Often times they contain unknown ingredients that may interact negatively with other medications someone is taking or with underlying health conditions.
However, even with these possible risks, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine might still be able to help with recovery from various illnesses, Chen said. One of the western medical doctors Chen shadowed as a student uses acupuncture regularly in his practice.
“I was surprised because the doctor wasn’t Asian by background,” said Chen. “He considered it in cases where published clinical research has indicated it might be effective, such as cases of chronic pain.”
While Chinese herbs may not be making a mainstream appearance in western medical clinics or pharmacies any time soon, to believers of traditional Chinese medicine, belief in an ancient system that has helped people deal with epidemics for thousands of years is an important part of the healing process. This belief will remain true, long after swine flu becomes a memory.