Is Ancient ‘Mocktail’ The Answer To Dengue Fever?

A viral outbreak at the southern tip of India has pushed an old village treatment into clinical trials as a treatment for dengue fever.

Dengue, a disease delivered through the sting of mosquitoes, is reaching epidemic proportions across the world’s tropical latitudes, especially in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (where I am currently based). The number of cases quadrupled this year, representing nearly a quarter of all reported cases and deaths in the country. The state reported 60 deaths and 9,000 victims through November, a tally that may be underreported.

Officials are considering extreme measures to exterminate mosquitoes.

Last month, the state health minister asked government hospitals to furnish dengue patients with a “mocktail” of juice made from neem and papaya leaves. The elixir dates back 2,500 years to the birth of Siddha medicine, a South Indian practice that is a close cousin of ayurvedic medicine.

Then, this week, the King Institute of Preventive Medicine, a flagship government hospital in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, announced its intention to do a double-blind study to see how effective the neem-papaya mix is in battling dengue. This month it started a trial in rats to make sure the treatment isn’t toxic.

Dengue fever is usually not fatal, but its main symptoms are high fever, muscle aches and pain. Western medicine has no cure for dengue, relying instead on pain relievers and fever reducers.

The neem tree is something of a miracle plant in India. It is a shade tree that grows well in areas without much rain. Its bitter leaves are an ingredient in South Indian rasam and curries, and its oil is a common additive to cosmetics, laundry soap, shampoos and toothpaste. Powder made from neem seeds are used in traditional Indian agriculture to ward off insects, and a meal made from neem is plowed into soil as a fertilizer.

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