On the Subject of “Herbs for Ebola”

In October there was a torrent of Facebook and blog posts on herbal remedies for treatment of Ebola virus infection. The outbreak has been raging in West Africa for several months. But when the possibility of one on US soil emerged, so did the hysteria. Common suggestions for antiviral treatment by posters on the net included “classic antivirals” like elderberry, lemon balm, St. John’s wort. Elderberry has been studied for influenza A/B, lemon balm with HSV, and hypericin (from St. John’s Wort) has shown some in vitro activity against a few viruses, but when it comes to testing them in humans against Hep-C and HIV infections, effects were nil. Garcinia kola seeds were a popular remedy-turned-meme based on a single 15-year old lab test.

I know there is little harm in these thought experiments of devising treatments for these deadly outbreaks. Similar conversations occurred during the fear of the swine flu pandemic. Is it not better to speculate about protocols than do nothing?

When it comes to terms like herbal antivirals (or herbal antibiotics, etc)–I don’t think this is an a good way to describe the ways in which herbs work. Herbs are chemically complex molecular multitaskers–the polar opposite of single agent pharmaceuticals with a single biological target. Calling something an ‘herbal antiviral’ is cramming a square peg into a round hole and does not play to the strength of herbs either. When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But it behooves a practitioner to be aware and cognizant of the limits of tools and methods. If not, than you’re just a prosletyzer, preaching the endless merits of your chosen practice. Are you a pragmatist or a preacher?

What I take issue with the most is the misinformation clustered around this topic. First, most the information used in the development of these protocols are gleaned from in vitro data. Many substances and phytochemicals exhibit antiviral properties in vitro, and these are usually isolates or concentrated extracts, on organisms in test tubes. This makes extrapolation into a live human body difficult.

My concern is not that herbalists stretch botanical therapeutics and try to come up with something new. Instead, I take issue with the assertion of a ‘remedy’ without consideration or discussion of where the information originated.

My parting words on Herbs for Ebola: critically appraise the origins and habitat of information, and be transparent about it. Always look under the hood, because it’s common for people to stretch or sweep away information.

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