Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The search for a cure

Unconventional medical treatments have survived in Egypt for millennia and today new alternative healing methods are becoming more common, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“A feeble body makes a feeble mind. I do not know what doctors cure us of, but I know this: they infect us with deadly diseases, cowardice, timidity, credulity, the fear of death. What matter if they make the dead walk? We have no need of corpses; they fail to give us men, and it is men we need” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In context of contemporary Egypt, what is alternative medicine? Practitioners differ in their interpretations of the subject. Take ozone treatment, for instance. Some consider it to be alternative medicine, while others do not. Today, ancient wisdom combined with sophisticated contemporary technologies are increasingly becoming merged to deal with unhealthy modern lifestyles.

“No medicine can cure the damage caused by disregarding the inner intelligence with which we are gifted,” surmises Indian practitioner Renu Chaudhary, author of Ayurveda to the Rescue: An Ancient Remedy for Modern Ailments.   

“There are specific special medical units and centres in Egypt today that sanction ozone treatment, such as the Military and Air Force Hospitals in Cairo and the Mustafa Kamel and Ras Al-Teen Hospitals in Alexandria,” Magdi Habachi, a medical consultant, told Al-Ahram Weekly.Military medical personnel in Egypt are permitted to experiment with unconventional treatments. Ozone treatment at the Military Hospital, for instance, is prescribed both for preventive and interventional purposes.

“Flooding the body with oxygen, medical ozone or pure oxygen is an especially important healing method. It is no coincidence that many scientific Nobel Prizes have been awarded for advancing oxygen-related technologies, for both medical and non-medical purposes,” Habachi notes.

Ozone treatment purports to increase the amount of oxygen in the body through the introduction of ozone. Ozone can be injected into the bloodstream, and hence the treatment is used in conjunction with autohemotherapy. There are studies, however, that indicate that this method of ozone treatment through the blood could be linked to certain infections, including hepatitis, which are particularly prevalent in Egypt. Nevertheless, Habachi does not accept  this conclusion.  

“Ozone can be introduced to the blood stream directly i.e. intra venously , or indirectly through a procedure called auto-haemotherapy, but also through the ear, rectum and vagina by insufflations, by funneling, bagging and sauna. Studies indicate that ozone therapy cure many infections, including hepatitis.

However, the introduction of ozone through the skin or by insufflations, by drinking ozonated distilled water using ozone creams and suppositories are safer, less traumatic ways because no prick nor piercing of the skin involved, ancient Egyptians knew the repercussions of incisions and injections they based their medicine on ointments and suppositories yet they were skilled surgeons.” Habachi commented.

Ozone therapy today is used to treat a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, a variety of heart conditions, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. Ozone therapy and Oxygen therapies, Hyperbaric and ultraviolet light or phototherapy are now more frequently prescribed and used in Egyptian medical institutions and particularly those related to the military.

Ozone cannot be stored and transported like other industrial gases, and it therefore must be produced on site. Medical Ozone is produced using medical grade oxygen and an ozone generator typically using a Corona discharge method . Personally I do not consider ozone treatment to be strictly speaking alternative medicine, but rather a pure medical act” Habachi added.

Several forms of alternative treatment are deeply rooted in Egyptian culture and date back to the days of the pharaohs. Innovative treatment methods are often based on ancient Egyptian practices.

The predilection for experimenting with unconventional or alternative methods of treatment is especially favoured by patients facing death, a prospect that many ancient Egyptian medical practices intermingled with magic. The sounds of certain words and recitals or incantations were in themselves thought to be a healing method depending on so-called “antidote spells.”

Amulets and sacred jewellery were widely used in ancient Egypt for the treatment of certain ailments. The magician was a healer, a medical practitioner and a religious priest / doctor.

Sounds, including music, have also been thought to have a therapeutic impact. It is believed by some that the word “azan / adhan,” the call to prayer in Islam, is derived from the oriental word “zen,” or at least associated with it. It is impossible to corroborate such an association, but many linguists say the Arabic root is related to hearing and the ear. The Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism favours direct understanding through what it calls zazen, for example.  

Of plasma therapy, Habachi comments that matter changes state when energy is supplied to it. With an increasing energy input, the state of matter changes from solid to liquid to gaseous. “The term plasma designates matter with a high, unstable energy level,” he explains, and this is used for medical purposes.  

Spiritual healing is also common among Muslims and Christians in Egypt. The writer Samir Abdel-Hakim Al-Khalek has authored a fascinating book on the subject, alas not yet translated into English, in which he focuses on treatment using blood-sucking leeches. However, he also delves into spiritual healing methods using verses from the Quran, herbalism and nutritional treatment.

In Egypt, healing by leeches is strictly speaking illegal, and practitioners can be prosecuted for using them. However, the therapy is still widely practiced in various urban and rural settings, though considered unhygienic in medical circles. Leech therapy is used in the Rehabilitation Centre in the Military Hospital, Al-Agouza.

Dove-healing is another peculiar, but popular, form of treatment for certain diseases in Egypt. A dove is held gently next to the part of the body that is ailing. The gentleness of the dove is supposed to bestow healing.

Complimentary medicine is certainly not orthodox, and it is rarely sanctioned by the authorities. But sometimes it can be difficult to draw the line between what is considered conventional and what is alternative medicine.

Another alternative treatment recently introduced into Egypt is hydrogen peroxide therapy. This is often defined as water with another oxygen atom, and today a number of ozone practitioners combine hydrogen peroxide therapy for certain patients. However, the therapy is at an experimental stage, and few doctors prescribe it since hydrogen peroxide is an aggressive oxidiser. Practitioners of the therapy use it in patients for sterilisation purposes and particularly for the treatment of certain viruses and bacteria.


CONVENTIONAL DISAPPROVAL: The Ministry of Health does not necessarily approve of the Ministry of Defence’s practices when it comes to alternative or unconventional medical treatments. Leeches are approved by the Ministry of Defence, for example, but frowned upon by the Ministry of Health.

Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Muslim religious institution and the world’s oldest university, does approve of unconventional treatments for pain relief and preventative medicine by leeches, however. It even has a specialised unit for alternative or unconventional medicine.

Unlicensed unconventional or alternative medical practitioners abound in Egypt. Many expatriates practice from their own homes and do not officially have clinics. However, they do have patients and sometimes a faithful following.

Moreover, contrary to received wisdom, alternative or unconventional treatment is not always cheap, and it can be as expensive, if not more costly, than conventional methods. Ozone is cheap and can be self administered, however some practitioners are expensive.

Many people feel homeopathy lacks biological plausibility. The American Health Association, the British National Health Service and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia concur that there is “no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition.”

Alternative medicine is thus controversial, and in Egypt there are no official statistics about its size. There are also different types of alternative medicine, some more acceptable to the authorities than others.

Compared with conventional medical treatments and surgery, acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal treatments and ozone therapy are attracting an increasing number of patients. Herbalists are common in both urban and rural settings.

Leech therapy is relatively inexpensive, and hence is regularly used by the poor as a form of conventional treatment, especially in shantytowns and rural areas. The practitioners do not have professional qualifications and licences are not prerequisites for the practice.

Research demonstrates that patients tend to seek care when their discomfort is greatest. The ancient Indian Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic, medicine is also now available in Egypt. This includes surgical techniques, the use of opium, and the application of oil by massages, as well as incantations and magical cures which are not sanctioned in Islam.

Religious disapproval apart, some medical practitioners warn that some medicinal cures used in Ayurveda medicine contain toxic levels of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Opium and camphor are prescribed for acute gastro-enteritis and certain other ailments, and these have been traditionally used by herbalists in Egypt for millennia.  

Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine in contemporary Egypt are few in number and tend to practice in secret with a restricted number of patients, mostly well-heeled urban professionals. Nevertheless, the focus by Ayurveda practitioners on yoga and meditation is gaining momentum.

Acupressure and acupuncture are also emerging as popular methods of treatment in Egypt, even though mostly confined to Cairo. But acupuncture is still the preserve of the relatively wealthy elite who increasingly use it for therapeutic purposes.

A number of Chinese residents in Egypt, as well as native Egyptians, now practice acupuncture. They typically practice from home or visit their patients privately. The practice is very expensive and is restricted to the elite.

Whether or not homeopathy is an effective treatment is debatable. Homeopathy “goes beyond current understandings of chemistry and physics,” notes acting deputy director of the United States National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Jack Killen.

The practice of homeopathy, although increasing common in Egypt, is highly controversial. Some homeopathic remedies involve poisons such as belladonna, arsenic, and poison ivy, though these are highly diluted in homeopathic remedies.

Aromatherapy can be effective in the treatment of stress and anxiety. It is not unheard of in Egypt today and is even relatively widely practiced. Essential aromatic plant oils are used to cure certain ailments in this technique. Lemon oil, for instance, enhances mood and may be used to treat stress. Eucalyptus is particularly toxic, but it is not widely used in Egypt.

Lavender and tea tree oil are becoming more available in the country. And lavender is extensively used in aromatherapy as a mild tranquiliser and sleeping aide.

Music therapy is considered as an established form of therapy by some health professionals. It can be effective in the treatment of depression and for patients suffering from emotional problems.

Chromotherapy, or colour therapy, is yet another form of alternative treatment that was understood by the ancient Egyptians. Moreover, mediaeval Muslim scientists such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) regarded colour as being of significant importance in diagnosing diseases. Blues and greens, for instance, are supposed to ward off fear and anxiety.

Some psychologists believe that blues and greens can have a calming effect on patients prone to panic attacks and bouts of depression. Cerulean and turquoise, colours that help one loosen up and unwind, are typically used in treating hypertension, certain coronary cardiac conditions, and in lowering blood pressure and the treatment of insomnia.

Precious and semi-precious gemstones are extensively used as a form of complimentary medicinal remedies. Coral, not strictly speaking a gemstone but rather a zoophyte, or an animal resembling a plant, are particularly potent. They are mentioned in the Quran in connection with pearl and ruby in Surat Al-Rahman, The Merciful, a chapter of the Muslim Holy Book. According to Dr Zakariya Hamimy, coral,and in particular deep red coral is used to heal a wide range of ailments. Blisters, bleeding wounds, common cold, constipation, cramp and croup, a respiratory condition triggered by viral infection. Corals are also used to treat gout and diabetes.  

The gemstones are believed to have therapeutic powers. Garnet is used in the treatment of circulatory diseases. Lapis supposedly cures insomnia and depression. Pearls presumably have calming properties.

Even though the holistic concept in medical practice is sometimes considered distinct from the concept in the alternative medicine, many unconventional medical practitioners use holistic healing. Reflexology and gemstone healing have increasingly gained popularity in contemporary Egypt, even though both methods of treatment have been used since ancient Egyptian times.

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