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Healers help with liver: study

Buddhist monk and Kru Khmer healer Southern Serow looks through the medicine shelf at his pagoda last year in Phnom Penh.
Buddhist monk and Kru Khmer healer Southern Serow looks through the medicine shelf at his pagoda last year in Phnom Penh. Eliah Lillis

Healers help with liver: study

Many Cambodians with liver problems are turning to traditional healers for treatment with a wide range of medicinal herbs – many of them with proven benefits – a situation that should prompt renewed efforts to integrate healers into a comprehensive health care system, according to a new report.

The prevalence of liver disease in Cambodia, combined with barriers to accessing modern health care, has caused many people to seek the services of traditional healers, or Kru Khmer, the report’s authors found. Though experts have long noted that eschewing modern medical care for the help of spiritual healers and herbalists is problematic, and occasionally dangerous, Cambodia’s Kru Khmer are increasingly using modern diagnostic methods and plants with proven medicinal properties.

Instead of leaving traditional healers to operate outside of modern medical facilities, the report – published in the journal Ethnopharmacology – suggests that their services be monitored and used in combination with modern medicine.

“Medicinal plants constitute the core of traditional medicine practice by these healers, and these plants play a very important role in the health care of people with liver problems in Cambodia,” the authors noted.

“Therefore, more attention should be paid to the integration of healers in national health care programs for the development of combined therapies.”

After surveying Kru Khmer in Phnom Penh, Kandal, Takeo and Kampong Speu, the researchers found that the plants used for treating the liver have “wide ethnobotanical use”, and have been shown in studies to prevent liver damage. Many of the plants also contained antimicrobial properties effective at preventing and curing infection.

Meanwhile, about 75 percent of the healers surveyed for the report said they relied on liver disease diagnoses conducted by hospitals.

The report details the use of 42 herbal remedies made from 83 medicinal plants. The most widely used plant families are Leguminosae and Poaceae. The plants are collected, dried, pulverised and mixed into concoctions with sugar and baking soda for oral consumption.

Chaong Saok Sat, a healer in Phnom Penh who claims to have treated about 4,000 patients with liver problems over the past decade, said yesterday that he uses plants mixed with black sugarcane and bamboo to treat the liver.

“They recover fast,” he said.

Traditional medicine has been recognised by the government, and the National Center of Traditional Medicine launched 20 years ago to train Kru Khmer and standardise the care they provide.

Nevertheless, the report’s authors recorded some shortcomings in their treatment of the liver, such as the fact that Kru Khmer generally do not differentiate between different types of hepatitis.

Still, the authors concluded, because traditional healing is often the only medical treatment affordable for people with liver disease in Cambodia, more studies should be carried out to determine how it can be effectively integrated in the national health care system.

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