Malaria! The name sends shivers down the spine. Only those who’ve faced it know how it feels to have malaria. Governments tried to eradicate, drugs worked for a time and then became redundant before long until Artemisia annua, or A. annua, or sweet wormwood, came along.
Meghalaya’s traditional healers also know about this herb.
The Khasis call it ‘u bat jaiaw’ and use it to treat ‘ka khiehshoh rih’ otherwise known as malarial fever. The Garos call it ‘khel bijek’ and use it to relieve headaches.
Millions have died because of it and the death rate continues. According to the WHO, in 2018 alone, it affected 228 million people and killed 405,000!
Of course, scientists have been working hard since the beginning of the last century and they have brought out miraculous cures. Antimalarial drugs, like quinine and chloroquine, have saved millions of lives in the last one hundred years.
But, as it turned out, the effects were short-lived. Complete eradication remains as elusive as ever. Why?
The malarial parasites have always managed to outsmart by mutating and developing resistance against these cures. Doctors soon found out that, after a few decades, the wonder-drugs stopped being that wondrous. And scientists kept themselves busy scrambling to find newer medicines.
That’s how they stumbled upon Artemisia annua.
It’s an annual herb that belongs to the plant family of Asters (Asteraceae). If you didn’t know it, you might mistake it for a common weed, such as the common
China is its native place but now we find it growing all over the world. Sweet wormwood or Artemisia annua thrives best in temperate and cool climates and higher altitudes.
Normally sweet wormwood grows up to a height of 30 to 100 cm but the specially cultivated ones can reach up to 200 cm. The flowers are yellowish-green and small – 3 to 5 cm in diameter. The seeds are single and tiny, without pappus and so can’t be dispersed by the wind.
Sweet wormwood’s most valuable parts are the leaves. They’re small, about 3 to 5 cm long, each divided into three leaflets by deep cuts. Their odour is intensely aromatic. Scientists say this is because of its main chemical, artemisinin, which is present between 0% and 1.5% in dried leaves.
Artemisinin is the most important bioactive principle of sweet wormwood and the most sought after for its medicinal properties.
I remember Grandpa telling us a story of how, long ago, the ancestors of his village, Mawphlang, had to abandon a huge territory in the plains of Assam because of fear of malaria. They were invited to settle in that place and preside over it as chiefs.
They went. But they soon hurried back. The reason? They had lost quite a few lives in quick succession to a strange sickness that made one ‘burn like fire and shake like leaves!’
It was malaria. They called it ‘ka khieshoh rih’.
And so, even till Grandpa’s time, he said, people from the village wouldn’t even venture out closer home to Ri-Bhoi! So afraid were they of malaria! Once it struck, there was no escape.
But Khasi traditional healers knew how to manage malarial fevers. That’s what Kong Ribha, a healer from Umtyrniut, near Mawphlang, told me.
I spoke to Kong to find out if she knew about sweet wormwood. I also sent a picture of it on Whatsapp. Pat came the reply.
"This is ‘u bat jaiaw', we use it to treat malaria, blood problems, and stomach problems such as constipation. You see we healers make what we believe are the correct remedies only after studying the patient’s case history. We first must find out the real underlying problems. Because they may be multiple and have many other complications. It is seldom that we use only a single herb. We generally combine two, three, or even six or seven herbs, depending upon the patient’s particular condition. Sometimes we prepare poultices and powders. At other times make decoctions to be taken internally. Or, we may use an oil or paraffin base for topical application. Again, there are remedies meant as baths or hot fomentations."
"What about 'u bat jaiaw'…how do you use it, for example, in malaria?’"
"In case of fevers or malaria, we make a decoction of the leaves of 'u bat jaiaw' and that of another herb, 'u sharita' (U sharita - Swertia chirayita – is commonly called ‘chiretta’ in English, and 'chirayata' in Hindi). These two are simmered over a low flame for about two hours. We then allow the decoction to stand and cool. After that we decant the liquid into bottles, usually one-litre ones. We advise the patient to take about a quarter of a cup, three or four times a day. The duration of the treatment can continue for two-three months, depending upon the severity of the case. Healers generally prepare decoctions to last for about two to four weeks, initially."
"The plant 'U bat jaiaw' has one very practical use also, if you are prone to sinusitis attacks, pluck a few leaves, bruise them between fingers and inhale. The oils from the leaves will give you relief almost immediately."
Here’s what these researchers found out. A malarial parasite’s life cycle follows certain biochemical pathways in the blood that consist of proteins (haemoglobin). Artemisinin works by binding itself ‘indiscriminately’ to these proteins. That’s like cutting down on the germ’s survival supply threshold.
The parasites need haemoglobin for survival and growth. Artemisinin too needs haem for activation. Haem is the iron-containing component of haemoglobin.
During the ‘fever’ stage of malaria, the parasite eats the haemoglobin in the blood and fills itself with haem. Artemisinin binds itself to the haem and so stifles the life out of the germ.
Post-doctoral researcher Leila S. Ross of Columbia University says, “Artemisinin kills by jamming up a large variety of cellular processes rather than a single pathway.”
Since the important discovery of artemisinins, Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACT) are now recommended by WHO. These types of therapies are found to swiftly reduce the number of P.falciparum malarial parasites in the blood.
Artemisia species are useful even as an insecticide, larvicide and sources of nutrition.
Get hold of Artemisia annua essential oil or hydrosols. These products come packed in convenient vials and cans; very handy and easy to use.
Use a drop or two of essential oil in your baths. Use it in aromatherapy to relieve yourself of tension headaches or relax and calm your mind. Or sniff it when you have a sneezing spree!
Hydrosols are the ‘water portion’ of the distillate that comes along with the essential oil. They're 100% pure, coming as they do with the steam, and they are amazingly handy products. Use hydrosols for skincare, aromatherapy, linen sprays, body sprays, room fresheners and more.
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