Pathogens and Pathology

The search for a vaccine to the corona virus while a worthy endeavour may take a long time, and may even turn out to be chasing the impossible. The guardian newspaper published an article on the 22nd of April implying that the vaccine if it arrives could indeed take a lot longer than we would like. The fastest developed vaccine was the mumps vaccine that took 4 years. In the meanwhile as I write this lockdown is easing off, schools are beginning to open, later this month we will also re open our clinic as everyone else, albeit with some extra precautions, will go back to work.

In the face of still high numbers of infections what can we do besides the sensible precautions of hand washing, wearing masks and [where possible] social distancing? This is good public health policy when considering the problem in terms of a pathogen i.e. the virus. When it comes to Traditional East Asian medicine the emphasis generally shifts from pathogen to pathology.

Although traditional medicine in many ways evolved as a response to epidemics, its approach to treatment focusses not on a causal pathogen such as a virus or bacteria, rather on how that pathology manifests in the patient. In this way we don’t think of treating an illness so much as a person who is ill. So in the case of Covid 19 there is no set formula or combination of points to needle, the treatment is determined by the collection of symptoms that the person is showing. Different combinations of fever, sweating, thirst, cough, sore throat, body aches, digestive issues, chest pain etc. together with specific pulse presentations, will determine what kind of herbal formula or acupuncture treatment will guide the body back to a healthy state. This approach takes the whole body’s systems into account to bring about a recovery irrespective of what has created the problem in the first place. As such it is applicable to Covid 19 or regular seasonal flu or any kind of deviation from a healthy state.

When the normal life promoting processes within us lose their way they can give rise to distressing symptoms, sometimes minor sometimes major. The aim of traditional medicine is to rectify pathology and reinstate physiology; actually this can be done at any time and ideally before pathology sets in. This is where traditional medicine has a role to play in prevention of illness, or at least minimising its risk. Because the focus of treatment is to optimise healthy functioning it can almost always be given as none of us are 100 % healthy. Herbal and acupuncture treatments are given based on pattern differentiation but there is a great deal of latitude in terms of severity of the pattern. Thus the same formula could be given to someone with almost no symptoms, just minor lack of appetite and some congestion under the ribs [not something they would remotely consider a medical problem] or to someone else with a severe sore throat and alternating fevers or migraines. The possibility of treating when things are mild or almost non existent is an opportunity to prevent or reduce the chance of  more serious health crisis.

At the beginning of the lockdown I read a translated blog from a county level hospital in Henan province in China written by traditional Chinese medical doctors describing the herbal medicine regime used at their hospital. In addition to the different formulas used for patients experiencing symptoms of Covid 19 they also had a regime of formulas for the admin staff and doctors and anyone who was healthy but might come into contact with infected people. At the time of writing none of the staff had become infected and this was seen in part due to the preventative treatment they were advocating. Although there is no Chinese medical magic bullet that will stop you getting ill, herbs and / or acupuncture treatments can help to keep your body functioning as well as it can and so minimise getting ill.

Some treatments like the application of direct moxa to an acupuncture point on the leg were specifically designed for the maintenance of health and immunity in later life. This is being utilised today in the treatment of drug resistant TB by the efforts of the group Moxafrica. It’s this approach of strengthening health that is a unique aspect of Chinese medicine and should be utilised as much as possible before we go into autumn and a possible second wave of the virus.

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