November 3, 2008

Iraq Returns to Its Alternative Medicine Roots

By Charles Levinson

BAGHDAD -- Like most American parents, 73-year-old Baghdad resident Khaled Shabib has warned his three children and seven grandchildren to stay away from the neighborhood drug dealer.

It's not marijuana, cocaine or other common American street drugs that worry Shabib. Instead, he fears the antibiotics, painkillers and antihistamines sold at his local pharmacy.

"My neighbor took an antibiotic the doctor prescribed, and it gave him tuberculosis," he says. "My grandson took an allergy medication and broke out in a skin rash. There is no regulation and no control of the pharmaceuticals sold in Iraq. We buy medicines, and they could be anything."

Shabib suffers from acute stomach pains and has urged his family to do as he and many other Iraqis have done: turn to ancient herbal remedies instead.

After the U.S. invasion of 2003, Iraq's borders were flung open. Insurgents and weapons poured in from neighboring countries. So, too, did illegal pharmaceuticals, says Sayed Kathem Khawasiya, the Ministry of Health's inspector general. Unlicensed medicine companies and sidewalk stands sprung up around Iraq, selling unregulated drugs from China and elsewhere.

Today, 70% of drugs on the Iraqi market are illegal, and one in five are total fakes, such as starch pills pawned off as legitimate antibiotics, Khawasiya says.

"The demand for herbal remedies has skyrocketed because of fake pharmacies and counterfeit medicines that don't work," says Faris Kadhem, director of the Health Ministry's herbal medicine center.

The government has raided and closed 120 illegal pharmacies across Iraq in the past two months, Khawasiya says. Many more continue to operate, she says. The pharmaceutical drug-smuggling networks are controlled by criminal gangs hoping to take advantage of an industry worth nearly half a billion dollars each year, she says.

The elderly Shabib tells his story after downing a capful of mint oil in a musty herbal medicine store in Bahgdad's Gilani neighborhood. Shelves are loaded with jars of dried grasses, colorful oils and seeds.

"I went to four different doctors and took the pills, painkillers and antibiotics they prescribed, and I only got worse. They gave me an ulcer, and I became too weak to walk," Shabib says. "Finally, I came here and started on a twice-a-week regimen of mint oil, and now my life is very comfortable."

Shabib pats his stomach with satisfaction as he shuffles out the door. Over the course of the next hour, a steady stream of customers pour into the small herb pharmacy seeking similar salves.

The store's owner, Sheik Fuad Abu Amir, prescribes turtle oil to an old man with arthritis, crushed seashell capsules to a woman with osteoporosis, and a concoction of horsetail weed, stinging nettle and sage to a diabetic.

Abu Amir learned this ancient art from his grandfather. Every herbal cure he sells is mixed with a touch of Nigella Sativa, known commonly as black cumin, which the prophet Mohammed said "cures every disease except death," according to compilations of Mohammed's sayings.

"These medicines were used in ancient Iraqi civilizations," Abu Amir says. "The great, early Islamic doctors relied on these remedies."

Abu Amir claims to possess a secret cure for infertility in women and says grape seed extract and fenugreek oil will turn an impotent man into a regular Don Juan. Business is so good, he says, that he recently has opened a second store in Baghdad's well-to-do Karrada district.

According to the Ministry of Health, 31 new herbal-medicine stores have applied for licenses this year, and countless more opened without licenses.

"Demand for herbal cures is growing beyond words," Abu Amir says. Other herbalists report similar success. The Zein al-Atat chain has mushroomed from a single store in 2003 to 13 stores in Baghdad today.

"People used to fear natural remedies," says Jafar Yassin, another herbal store owner in Baghdad. "Now people are using them more and more, and there are herbal medicine stores in every neighborhood. The doctors prescribe drugs, but they are useless. People are suffering." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>