Oriental medicine may help treat MERS

Oriental medicine may help treat MERS


By Lee Seung-hun 

Right now, it would not be an exaggeration to state that the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak is the single largest issue in Korea. 

Unfortunately, it looks like the outbreak is not going away anytime soon. We will be dealing with this for quite some time.

Repeated cases of so called “super spreaders” who infect a substantial number of people are especially worrying, as they may indicate that the disease can spread outside of hospitals.

Hopefully, the crisis will not come to that and will be contained in the coming weeks.

The MERS is caused by MERS-CoV, a type of coronavirus.

Coronaviruses, in general, cause respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, in mammals and birds.

Some readers may recall the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak several years ago; such flu illnesses are caused by influenza viruses.

A vaccine as well as medicines are available for the swine flu. 

In contrast, no vaccines are available for diseases caused by coronaviruses, as they tend to transform very rapidly. 

Accordingly, there are no known vaccines or medicines available for the MERS.

These facts alone are a cause for concern for most people, but what makes the public’s anxiety worse are recent reports that even a healthy person in his or her 30s have become critical after contracting the MERS, unlike the initial reports that said only MERS patients with underlying illnesses critical.

There are no treatment procedures for the MERS; current procedure focus on alleviating the symptoms.

For example, if a patient exhibits fever, he or she is given medication to bring the fever down, and one with a persistent cough is given medication to stop the cough. Such treatments help the patient can recover from the virus on his or her own.

In a sense, this approach is much like that for treating the common cold.

Similarly, for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that occurred in 2002 in Hong Kong and China and that caused concern around the world, treatments were available only for the symptoms. There were no vaccines and treatments against the SARS.

The SARS virus is also a coronavirus and is a distant cousin of the MERS virus.

As such, the health organizations’ strategies for battling the SARS back then can guide those for fighting the MERS.

In 2004, the World Health Organization held a specialists’ meeting consisting of 68 experts from seven nations to promote clinical trials, including for Oriental medication, in the treatments for the SARS.

The findings of the trials were officially published in the report “SARS: Clinical trials on treatment using a combination of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine.”

The report states that in treating SARS patients, a combination of traditional Chinese (Oriental) medicine and Western medicine was more effective that Western medicine alone.

Twelve clinical studies were conducted to analyze the effects of Oriental treatments on actual SARS treatments, which are reduction in transmission of the SARS to the medical staff, alleviation of clinical symptoms, reduction in the lung inflammation, improvements in oxygen desaturation, reduction in use of steroids and reduction of the mortality rate.

Based on such finding, clinical treatments employed Oriental medication against the swine flu during the 2009 outbreak.

Although Korea has been devoting its attention and resources to the battle against the MERS , it has unfortunately overlooked Oriental medicine as part of the solution.

Owing to the lack of awareness, even the MERS task force in the National Assembly consisting only of medical professionals who practice Western medicine, such as doctors, pharmacologists and nurses and excludes Oriental medicine practitioners.

The country has to rethink its strategy for the MERS crisis. It should reference the SARS outbreak in China and Hong Kong and incorporate Oriental medicine in their treatments of patients. 

My sincere hope is that all medical resources, regardless of whether they are from Western medicine or Oriental medicine, are employed to put an end to this national crisis as soon as possible. 

The writer practices oriental medicine at the UN Oriental Medical Clinic in Hannam-dong, Seoul.