Lagundi beckons

Doctora, sa floor natin, ang tawag sa iyo, Dr. Tubig, lalo na pag may ubo.” Fresh out of fellowship training and struggling to establish a practice, that innocent remark from my then secretary brought about ambivalent thoughts and feelings. Were the implications good or bad? Good, as I was sticking to what was taught by mentors in infectious disease, to be prudent in the use of antibiotics, or bad, as my patients would leave thinking I was not good or capable enough, being young and needing experience for having water as my only and main prescription. Nowadays, with the abundance and easy access to information, and heightened awareness as an after-effect of the pandemic, people hopefully, have a better understanding of the self-limiting course of viral respiratory infections, the importance of supportive treatment complemented with the need for monitoring and observation for progression of symptoms that would necessitate consult or a subsequent visit to a physician’s clinic.

More than a decade ago, a mentor had graphically traced the history of antimicrobials, and repeatedly warned us of the increasing resistance and the bleak possibility of a future wherein we could come to a dead end in the development of newer drugs. His final slide was a picture of a cartoon character offering the patient the roots of a plant. Presented in a light fashion, it was a realistic forecast and an eye-opener.

Vitex negundo L, or more commonly known as “lagundi,” is a five-leaved chaste tree, a locally abundant herbal plant that Filipino traditional healers have used as a remedy for cough, colds, other respiratory ailments, and fever. In addition, from the website of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD), it was quite interesting to read of lagundi in traditional medicine, as being used to treat “insect and snake bites, ulcers and rheumatism,” aside from the conditions mentioned previously.

Currently classified as an herbal medicine, it is proven to be of benefit in respiratory infections that are nonbacterial in origin. Its therapeutic claims are a product of years of rigorous research and numerous studies and have undergone preclinical and safety human trials. Recently, in a study by Dr. Cecilia C. Maramba-Lazarte and her excellent team at the Institute of Herbal Medicine of the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health, lagundi was also found to be safe for use in the treatment of mild COVID-19 infections in adults, was effective in decreasing symptoms, and provided faster relief from anosmia or lack of smell, as compared to those in the placebo group. In the market, it is sold in both syrup and tablet formulations.

While having a more expansive knowledge of its medicinal properties and approved indications has been of tremendous assistance in managing and treating cases for the practicing clinician, to recently learn of the story behind its success was more impactful, as it brought on a deeper and profound appreciation for the multidisciplinary group of Filipino scientists whose combined efforts through the years have contributed to the tremendous growth of the local pharmaceutical industry through herbal medicine. Reading through, there was this inner wish that the story may be widely shared, so that we, as a people, would realize that as a country, we are not poor. We have the wealth of both human and natural resources and we should be the first ones to realize our palpable potentials. Without indulging in melodrama, it is a source of pain to witness that other countries are the first to see how far we can go, and in most cases are tragically the ones who benefit financially. I say this as a wake-up call to each and every one of us, that we have what it takes and that we can go toe to toe with anyone if we learn to invest in our own people.

I have taken part and have read through numerous mission-vision statements. With permission from its current director, please allow me to share their mission statement, to not only let you know more about its existence but to feel the intensity of their commitment. Hopefully, it may inspire you as well and it is a privilege to know the people and the community behind this endeavor:

“The Institute of Herbal Medicine of the University of the Philippines, National Institutes of Health, serves the Filipino and the global community through research, training, and consultancies for herbal medicine product development in the Philippines and the region. We utilize current and relevant technologies to develop safe, effective, and affordable herbal medicines through a sustainable, integrated, and multidisciplinary approach responsive to the health needs of the community and promotion of the macro-economic growth of the country. We manage our resources responsibly and ethically to provide equitable opportunities for the growth of our people and the institution.”