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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vietnam relies on traditional medicine to lower health costs

Vietnam relies on traditional medicine to lower health costs

HANOI (AP) - With venomous snakes and scorpions, needles and herbs, impoverished

Vietnam is providing alternatives to costly western medicine.

Traditional cures are giving way to modern medical practices elsewhere in Asia, but

Vietnam has made herbal potions, snake balms and acupuncture integral to its overtaxed

medical system.

It is good business for Tran Nhu Ban, the self-styled "richest snake man of

the north." Clutching a squirming tangle of deadly banded kraits on his snake

farm near Hanoi, he explained that python fat taken as a liquid or fried with rice

is effective against asthma, and python bile soothes burns.

Various tonics are produced from reptile bones and blood, even by stuffing entire

snakes into bottles filled with herbs and liquid.

Snake farms are multiplying, with official encouragement. Ban, 26, said he makes

a good living by selling his medications to Vietnam's state enterprise for traditional

medicine and to neighboring China.

Some Vietnamese folk remedies and tonics, especially those said to increase sexual

prowess, are dubious at best. But others have been effective for centuries and are

the subject of continued scientific study.

For example, the Ecological and Biological Resources Institute is cultivating hundreds

of black and brown scorpion species, extracting their venom twice a month with the

help of electric stimulus. The official Vietnam News Agency said the venom is used

to treat skin diseases, glaucoma and some nervous disorders.

Dr. Nguyen Tai Thu, director of the Vietnam National Institute and Hospital of Acupuncture,

said traditional methods fill gaps in the health system and are generally cheaper

than western equivalents.

In some parts of the country, herbal cures are a necessity because even such basic

western medicines as antibiotics are either not available or are too expensive for


With only one doctor for every 3,100 people, hospitals dating to colonial times and

a meager budget for medical needs, Vietnam has staggering health problems.

Official statistics say 1 million Vietnamese children are handicapped and half of

the 21 million who live in rural areas are malnourished.

Last year, 96 percent of the elderly were said to be in mediocre or poor health.

Tens of thousands of invalids from half a century of war receive little or no care.

Thu, who was trained in western medicine, said every major hospital in Vietnam has

an acupuncture and traditional medicine section.

His 11-year-old institute treats about 500 patients a day in addition to conducting

research and courses in acupuncture for both Vietnamese and foreigners.

Acupuncture treatment costs U.S. 30 cents to U.S. 40 cents a day, compared to U.S.

$100 or $200 for a surgical procedure, Thu said.

He said he has successfully treated various nervous disorders, and enabled abdominal

and other operations to be performed without anaesthesia, by using acupuncture needles

attached to a 9-volt battery.

Overweight women have lost several pounds after a month of treatment, Thu said, and

smokers and drug addicts have been weaned from their addictions.

"Modern hospitals can't treat some of them, so they send them to us," the

61-year-old doctor explained during a tour of wards for patients who live permanently

in the institute compound.

A special dormitory houses children with meningitis, cerebral paralysis or encephalitis.

Others are deaf, dumb, blind, or severely malnourished.

Thu proudly displayed a photo album showing children before and after acupuncture.

It was a gallery of near-skeletons transformed into seemingly healthy youngsters.



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