Derived from the root of a flowering plant called woad, or Isatis tinctoria, ban lan gen has a certain logical appeal as a cure-all for many in China, where it is widely used to combat the common cold. In the parlance of traditional Chinese medicine — focused on balancing yin and yang, hot and cold, in the body — ban lan gen is valued for its antiviral properties as a “clear heat,” said Yang Liteng of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou.
The view of Yang, an expert in integrating Chinese and Western medicine for respiratory diseases, reflects the vast majority of China’s medical community — that ban lan gen may have proved helpful for viruses in the past but lacks proof as a treatment for H7N9.
“In the first 24 hours of the common cold, ban lan gen can restrain the virus and is helpful,” Yang said. In the case of H7N9, however, Yang said it’s too soon to tell, calling the Jiangsu advisory irresponsible because “there is no scientific evidence showing that it is helpful.”
But with relatively mild side effects, the herb would be harmful only to those with weak constitutions, Yang said.
Diplomacy and skepticism
For the most part, central health authorities have avoided weighing in on the ban lan gen debate.
The World Health Organization, the lead international agency in the crisis, has been similarly diplomatic. “The main recommendation in our clinical guidelines for treatment is the prompt administration of neuraminidase inhibitors,” a type of anti-influenza drug, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in an e-mail. “We do not have enough evidence to comment on the efficacy of traditional medicines, although we know there have been reports of their efficacy.”
But some people have had a field day with the conflicting government advisories on the root remedy, especially online, one of the rare places where criticism of Chinese officials is possible. In one especially popular Internet meme, bloggers have been tweeting traditional poems but replacing key words with “ban lan gen” in mock praise of its good-for-any-situation properties.
Although skepticism abounds, there are many other steps that Chinese and WHO experts agree the public should be taking, such as eating only fully cooked poultry, avoiding contact with birds and washing hands frequently.
Perhaps sensing a rare opening for unsolicited public health advice, Yang, the medical professor, did not hesitate to tack on a few precautions that never hurt anyone: “Adopt a clean living style and a healthier diet. And do some physical exercise.”
Li Qi contributed to this report.