Viral Diseases and Complementary Medicine

Paul L. Reller L.Ac. / Last Updated: August 03, 2017

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Flu virus, or influenza: current standard treatment and research confirming efficacy of Chinese herbs

The flu, or influenza, a perhaps the most widespread illness known to man, yet modern medicine still has no effective treatment. It is an infectious disease caused by RNA viruses of the Orthomyxoviridae family. The most common symptoms include sore throat, headache, muscle ache, chill, fever, cough, fatigue and general discomfort. More serious cases may result in pneumonia, which is sometimes fatal in the elderly and very young patients. The flu is distinguished from the Common Cold, which is caused by a different strain, or family of viruses, the coronaviruses or the rhinoviruses for the most part. The term stomach flu, is a mistaken term, referring to gastroenteritis, which is not caused by influenza viruses, but is usually itself of viral origin. Norovirus and rotavirus are the two most common causes of gastroenteritis, although adenovirus and astrovirus are not uncommon. Gastroenteritis may also be caused by bacteria such as the spore-forming Clostridium difficile, parasitic microbes, toxins, or medication.

Currently, due to a lack of standard pharmacological treatment, and the possibility of more severe strains of flu virus causing severe illness, the strategy of utilizing a flu vaccine is widespread. The flu vaccine, though, is targeting only a few strains of more serious types of virus, and has little or no actual effect against most common strains of influenza. The first 15 years of administering flu vaccine in the United States produced no measurable decrease in the number of deaths or serious illnesses in the targeted population of the elderly. Nevertheless, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues to support widespread flu vaccine yearly, due to lack of an alternative. The most common human flu vaccine is the trivalent influenza vaccine (TIV) that contains purified and inactivated material from only 3 viral strains, typically 2 influenza A virus subtypes, and 1 influenza B virus strain. New influenza viruses are constantly evolving by mutation and reassortment of the genetic codes. Since viruses are not living organisms they are not restricted by standard passing on of genes via replication of offspring.

Neuraminidase inhibitors such as oseltamivir are the current choice of treating more serious cases of influenza (Tamiflu, Relenza, and Peramivir). Due to side effects and drug warnings, though, these drugs have not been widely prescribed until recently, with a large advertising push. Increased use of Tamiflu has resulted in a very large rise in viral drug resistance to oseltamivir, though, decreasing its potential to treat more serious cases of influenza and the upcoming pandemic . M2 inhibitors (adamantanes) are sometimes effective against influenza A strains if given early in the infection, but are always ineffective against influenza B strains, because these viruses do not contain the M2 molecules. Drug resistance has rapidly risen in the U.S. as well, and resistance in the H3N2 strain rose to 91 percent in 2005. It is believed that the rapid development of drug resistant viral strains was due to the addition of adamantanes in many over-the-counter cold remedies. By 2012, though, medical doctors were starting to prescribe neuraminidase inhibitors such as Tamiflu routinely when patients presented acute cases of influenza or other viral illness, despite drug resistance due to overuse and overprescription. It seems like we will never learn. The most common immediate side effects of Tamiflu are nausea (10 percent of patients in clinical trials), headache (18 percent), diarrhea (7 percent), cough (5 percent), and dizziness (2 percent), but the eventual side effects of abnormal behavioral and psychiatric symptoms, such as tactile hallucination, have been the most alarming adverse effect. By 2012, the European Medicines Agency and the Nordic Cochrane Centre for drug meta-analysis was challenging the manufacturer Roche for complete drug trial data, due to numerous reports of more frequently occurring adverse effects, as well as a lack of proof of efficacy, especially with development of drug resistance. In the meantime, more than a dozen countries have spent a fortune stockpiling these adamantane antiviral drugs. Currently, most research is now focused on the finding of effective biologics, which are drugs that, like herbs, stimulate natural immune defenses. Of course, Mother Nature has been experimenting and evolving a wide array of chemicals that achieve this purpose, and these are found in medicinal herbs. Mother Nature has had the advantage of millions of years to develop these effective herbal chemicals. Why these few antiviral pharmaceuticals are not preserved for severe viral diseases to stop this development of drug resistance should be the big question, and mirrors the present condundrum with antibiotic overuse and antibiotic-resistant strains of virulent bacterial disease. Simply utilizing professional herbal medicine is the logical answer to these problems, but it fought because of economic and competitive concerns.

While Western research into herbal treatment of influenza is very sparse, there has been a number of clinical research trials that have, so far, confirmed efficacy of Chinese herbs in the treatment of human flu. See one review from the NIH PubMed database by clicking here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15674953. More specific study of Chinese herbs as potent medicines for treating viral diseases are now being conducted, though, and one example, in 2015, at China Medical University, National Chung Hsing University and Tunghai University, all in Taichung, Taiwan, found that the Chinese herb Polygonum cuspidatum (Hu zhang), now famous as the source of the active herbal chemical Resveratrol, exerted significant antiviral effects inhibiting influenza virus replication through a number of physiological pathways, including inhibition of hemagglutinin and neuramindase, and increasing the expression of interferon beta. The direct inhibition of viral replication and simultaneous activation of host immune response has not been previously found in any herbal or pharmacological antiviral medicine, and was proven to inhibit the viral influenza strain H1N1, believed to be the family that will produce the next viral pandemic. To see this important study, the first of many showing the importance of integrating herbal medicine into antiviral strategies, click here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25658356. More and more such studies are confirming the proof of efficacy of herbal chemicals to inhibit viral replication, and some of these may be accessed in the section of this articles entitled Additional Information. Most of the commonly used antiviral herbs have now been proven effective, and the array of mechanisms to inhibit pathogenic viruses is broad, as well as the proven mechanisms that enhance both innate and learned immunity. Of course, there are thousands of year of empirical proof of Chinese herbal formulas in treating viral infections and endemic diseases, and many patients today will confirm their efficacy as well. There is also considerable research in Asian countries verifying the efficacy of a wide array or medicinal herbs and explaining their physiological effects, although most of these studies have still not found acceptance into medical journals in the West that will publish them. There is no reason that both pharmaceutical biologics and herbal medicines cannot be utilized for an effective treatment protocol in the future, though, and with virtually no history of negative herb-drug interactions in this regard, with both being heavily prescribed in hospitals in China, South Korea and Japan for decades, we shall see whether health authorities finally acknowledge the sensible nature of such Integrative Medicine or continue to kowtow to pharmaceutical lobbying to protect profits from patented medicines that so far have proven inadequate to cope with the spectrum of viral diseases and the upcoming viral pandemic.

As research into the anti-viral mechanisms of herbal chemistry accelerates, a large amount of data is supporting the effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine to treat viral illness. In addition to this safe and inexpensive treatment for viral disease with professional herbal medicine, prevention of viral disease and strengthening one's immune system is an even more important goal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine (CIM) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is also now supported with much scientific evidence. A sample of this scientific data is presented below in additional information with links to the study summaries.

Pandemic threats, the H1N1 virus, called Swine Flu, and other potential pandemic viral strains

H1N1 virus is a subtype of influenza A virus, which is the most common type of flu virus seen in humans. Some strains of H1N1 are already endemic, or present in a subset of the population, and account for many of the common cases of seasonal flu with mild symptoms. The 3 subtypes of influenza A virus that currently spread widely among humans are H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2. The current fear is that the one type, H1N1, has mutated and formed a pandemic viral threat, meaning that this viral mutation could simultaneously affect a large part of the whole (pan-) human population, like the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed well over 20 million people in a short time and ended World War I. The 1918 pandemic flu virus is believed to have been an avian viral strain that mutated to affect humans, for want of a better explanation, but our science still has a poor understanding of how a pandemic viral disease could spread. There are 52 key genetic changes that distinguish avian flu viral strains from those that spread among humans. How or why, or what number of mutations are necessary to create a dangerous pandemic variety, are still unanswered questions. With all of these variables, and the fact that presently, H1N1 has affected most patients with only mild symptoms, it is unlikely that modern science is able to come up with a specific allopathic viral vaccine or remedy quickly enough if this H1N1 variant, or other viral strain mutation, turns pandemic.

The more pathogenic avian flu viruses since 1959 involve the influenza A HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) subtypes H5 and H7, which have caused devastating outbreaks in poultry with high mortality rates, and have resulted in some crossover to humans. The pandemic threat of these avian flu viruses have resulted in government mandates to slaughter millions of birds to prevent a human crossover, especially when the H5N2 was found, but as of 2013 the H5N2 had not been isolated in humans, just suspected. A 2014 Taiwan study of workers exposed to the 2012 outbreak in Taiwan found little evidence of cross-infection, with just just 4.4 percent with elevated HA antibodies (nonspecific), and 1.4 percent with potential subclinical viral illness (also nonspecific). The prevalence of influenza type A H5 viruses in commercial poultry is evident from the 2015 tests revealing that a large number of turkey farms in Canada and the U.S. were infected with avian flu H5 strains. To prevent the potential for avian flu human pandemic, nearly a million birds were slaughtered with this finding. Whether this will have any actual impact on preventing a pandemic is unknown, though, and shows the focus on theoretical threats that may have little to do with the next inevitable influenza pandemic. To protect against this devastating threat, individuals may work to enhance their immune function, though, to better insure survival.

As we study this subject, many people are starting to realize that it is perhaps the ability of the individual immune system to respond to new strains of virus, rather than the ability of a vaccine or synthetic antiviral remedy, that is most important. The function and outer capsule of the virus are determined by the needs of the host, not the virus itself, since the virus is not a living organism, but just a symbiotic piece of genetic data evolved in the exogenous environment. Fear of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu threat drove a widespread vaccination and testing program, and many are skeptical of this vaccine and the testing. Real testing of a viral strain is difficult, and requires a 3-4 week process utilizing polymerase chain reaction to multiply the viral particles enough to vaguely analyze them with current technology. Because the 2009 H1N1 was declared a medical emergency, health authorities were temporarily allowed to use a quick test for the virus. This quick test is usually not allowed by the FDA and CDC because it only gives data that rules out whether the virus is from a different family of viruses, and does not give data that confirms that this H1N1 is a variant called the swine flu. Nevertheless, there were published reports that state that H1N1 was the predominant flu strain in the fall of 2009, and this was used to alarm the public. Since H1N1 is a common flu strain every year, this is not really an alarming fact on its own, but this H1N1 variant is still called a pandemic, despite the lack of worldwide infection or significant mortality. Lack of understanding among the population propelled huge sales of this new swine flu vaccine. This is not to say that H1N1 variant swine flu is not a threat. Any potential pandemic threat could be disastrous. The real question is do we actually have a viable medical treatment and prevention protocol in modern medicine, or are we just pretending? To insure greater success, the smart patient will not depend completely on a vaccine, or even on an antiviral medication, but will also take the necessary steps to strengthen the immune system, decrease stress on the body, and take proven herbal antivirals to achieve a more thorough medical protocol.

How dependable is our knowledge of the pandemic threat? By the end of 2009-2010 flu season, the swine flu pandemic was not only not seen, but hospitalizations from influenza were much lower than the previous years, and deaths from influenza were considerably lower. The only unusual statistic was that the majority of deaths from influenza occurred in patients under 65 years of age during this flu season, which is highly unusual. The public did not see evidence of the pandemic, and the vaccine had to be practically given away. This, of course, undermined the public confidence in the health services. Such a problem is not solved by propaganda.

A full review of our approach to influenza and the upcoming pandemic should educate the public more thoroughly to the science of influenza, and not pander to the pharmaceutical industry and the need to promote vaccine sales. In fact, a global fund to produce and distribute influenza vaccine, with no profit motive, should be instituted immediately, and distribution should be centered on public need, rather than the need to generate enough profit from the vaccine to stimulate the drug companies to keep producing it. This complex money game could have disastrous consequences in the future, whereas a global health initiative could achieve efficient success if tightly regulated, and cost-reducing methods are employed. In any case, complete control of the vaccine program would shift scientific attention to completely practical study and application of health system technology to avert the next pandemic, if this is possible, and to prepare for the consequences if it is not possible. A repeat of the 1918 pandemic with over 20 million deaths is not acceptable. Utilization of herbal medicines and improved public health programs to increase general immune health in the population should also be part of the overall strategy. Focusing completely on vaccines and drugs is a dangerous strategy, especially given the severe failure of these therapies to date.