By Marivir R. Montebon
CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ—Despite warnings from scientists and health officials that natural remedies are by no means a medically proven treatment for various diseases, Filipinos in New Jersey could not be stopped from using traditional remedies to fight the coronavirus.
Without a COVID-19 vaccine, many Filipinos in the Garden State believe that natural remedies—such as ginger, ginseng, bitter melon and other roots—have a positive impact on their health.
“I drank a lot of pure ginger tea and water. The tea was a bitter-tasting concoction from dried roots,” said Crestita “Tita” Busque, who was tested positive for COVID-19.
Busque, a resident of Elizabeth, NJ, began to experience flu-like symptoms in early April. She took Z-pack antibiotics on her own, but the symptoms did not go away.
When she went to the doctor, she was told to rush to the ER to get treated for bilateral pneumonia. The 57-year-old Filipino registered nurse was immediately admitted to Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth.
For a week, Busque had trouble breathing. She was put on supplemental oxygen to help her breathe.
“They gave me antibiotics, prednisone and hydroxychloroquine,” she said. “I also received insulin and Lovenox, a blood thinner. For four days, I was on two of those meds. Then, I was discharged [from the hospital].”
At home, while she was in quarantine, Busque said she took a lot of vitamin C and citrus fruits: mango, papaya, cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberry, grapes, and blueberries.
“I lost my sense of smell and taste, and water had saved me,” she said. “I weighed only 81 lbs. after I was discharged. I had to force myself to drink liquids.”
Two weeks after her battle against COVID-19, she was able to go back to work.
“The prayers and love from my family and friends also helped me get through those trying times,” Busque said.
To this day, she said she takes her multivitamins and Vitamin C as she resumed her duties as a health frontline worker in a nursing home.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to sellers of unproven remedy products, including: taking high doses of intravenous vitamin C, using herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, ozone therapy, bio-electric shields, HEPA air purifiers, UV light therapy, and more.
Still, other Filipinos in New Jersey try homeopathic therapy, like drinking tea made of ginseng and ampalaya (Tagalog for bitter melon)—something that they used to treat mild flu in the Philippines.
“These kinds of tea (ginseng and bitter melon) are really bitter,” said Rev. Gregorio Agulan, a pastor for the Unification Church in Elizabeth. “But their efficacy has been proven to treat flu-like symptoms, and kill viruses and bacteria. I had to drink them to get cured.”
Agulan, who also runs his own cleaning business, said he drinks tea more than what has been suggested by a friend: one liter of water per person a day.
“My home remedies, as supplements to back up my doctor’s prescriptions, include ginseng tea to strengthen my immune system,” he added. “It has been very effective.”
Natural remedies are also common among Chinese and other Asian ethnic groups. In China alone, the Chinese government is heavily promoting traditional medicines as treatments for COVID-19.
While wrestling against COVID-19, Tessa Garcia said she did tu-ob therapy, and it temporarily eased her chest pain.
Tu-ob, the Cebuano term for steam therapy, is not an uncommon practice among Filipinos to soothe nasal passages and get relief from the symptoms of a cold or sinus infection. Many Filipinos believe that the warm air can loosen the mucus and the salty moist can kill viruses.
A nursing student from Jersey City, Garcia knew she had to take her doctor’s prescription while complementing traditional Filipino remedies.
Reports, however, say there is no evidence that inhaling steam kills the virus and that bringing hot water into close contact with the person’s face and airways can cause burns and serious damage.
For Agulan, tu-ob therapy did not work for him.
“I tried tu-ob therapy, but it was not effective. It drained my strength. I became weak and the virus attacked me again in the middle of the night,” said Agunan. “Tu-ob may work against minor illnesses, but not with the coronavirus—which is a very strong virus.”
“My fever persisted, despite doing tu-ob therapy,” she said. “It did not help me.”
According to Dr. Elisse Nicole Catalan, the traditional tu-ob is considered an adjunctive therapy, which eases air passages for temporary relief.
“It is not a cure for COVID-19,” said Catalan, a medical doctor from the Philippines who has been trained in public health from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, a graduate of Harvard Medical School Southeast Asia Healthcare Leadership program.
“Many Filipinos think that if they do tu-ob therapy, it is OK for them not to have a medical check up,” added Catalan. “We need to educate more Filipinos about the use of tu-ob and other natural remedies.” #