Cure comes the herbal way

With people becoming increasingly conscious of their looks, effective skin care is much sought after these days. Chennai- based scientist Dr. Ranganathan is making significant strides in herbal treatment for the skin.

BEAUTY IS but skin-deep say sages. But the times we live in demand a certain glow of our sadly leathery exterior and this has resulted in brisk sales of placebo creams that promise fair skin. The names of various ointments, foundation creams and potions literally arouse subliminal feelings that evoke a yearning for a fair and lovely skin. Vance Packard, the author of the controversial book of the 1950s, "The Hidden Persuaders," used to vehemently take up arms against hyperbolic claims of American marketeers seeking to sell misplaced hope by manipulating the hidden triggers embedded in average human beings. Fifty years down the line, Packard would probably turn in his grave if he were to know of the ruthless, slick vending of hope (not beauty) to aspiring customers!

The skin is so consciously cared for that everybody laps up all the conditioners, lotions, moisturisers, foundations and end up paying a pretty penny for the larger objective of beauty. Nobody likes to dwell upon afflictions like skin diseases and one gets the feeling that if a person contracts a skin disease the fact would be carefully hidden from even their near and dear, let alone from their social peers.

Viewed in this perspective, it must be conceded that opportunistic drug marketeers had the raison d'etre to offer expensive products to help get rid of skin infections quickly without worrying about the detrimental side-effects that they could cause. A person suffering from fungal infections like Dhobi's Itch or Ringworm, which come under "Dermaphytosis," would be terribly embarrassed that he would do his best to wear clothes over the affected area (certainly not recommended) and may not even go to his doctor, hoping that frequent baths with sweet smelling soap would take care of the problem.

Sadly, the problem gets worse and with great reluctance and agitation, he consults a doctor who would prescribe an expensive triazole derivative which offers some relief. But this is clearly out of the reach of the common man. Some doctors would prescribe a polyene anti-fungal drug like Amphotericin-B which might have severe side-effects owing to its toxicity. When the patient does not progress satisfactorily, the dreaded steroids are administered which seemingly get rid of the fungus temporarily but also suppress the body's immuno system, compounding the problem.

In this bleak scenario of ignorance, fear and the consequent peddling of injurious drugs, herbal drugs offer a great alternative to tackle fungal infections of the skin. It is only of late that the tremendous efficacy of 'herbal solutions' for beauty and medicine has been explored. And it is undeniable that multinationals have plonked on to the patents bandwagon to corner some long-known herbs endemic to India.

Working in extremely unpretentious surroundings in Tamil Nadu, a very significant achievement has been recorded by a young Chennai scientist, Dr. S. Ranganathan. Currently a lecturer at New College (Dept. of Microbiology), 33 year-old Dr. Ranganathan has come up with a neem extract (botanical name Azadirachata Indica) which he says addresses fungal diseases of the skin as well as the dreaded leukoderma. And more importantly, the drug developed by him will cost a fraction of the steep prices of the Mycosis drugs in the market. The formulation has been already evaluated for its efficacy and safety (clinical trials) and has been submitted for patency along with its mechanism of action.

What is more, Dr. Ranganathan is also associated with Dr. JRK's Siddha Research and Pharmaceuticals, Chennai, as a senior consultant, where a project involving the study of the effect of plant extract drugs for treating cancer and the HIV virus is on.

Dr. Ranganathan has published 30 papers in international journals and was recently conferred the Glaxo-Dr. Pankajalakshmi Award for his outstanding contribution to the field of Medical Mycology. He is also jointly authoring a textbook on Mycosis in India along with Dutch scientists.

An interesting thought occurs at this juncture - a small hill called Maruthvaalai lies along the National Highway, 6 km short of Kanyakumari. The hill is believed to have come up when a small bit broke off from the mountain carried by Lord Hanuman to Lanka. The mountain contains a dense growth of the Sanjivani herb which reputedly has miraculous healing properties.

One can look forward to the Maruthvamalai hill being catapulted to international fame in ministering to deep incisions of the skin rather than be carried away to expensive Western lotions, that scratch ineffectually on the surface of our skins. For, beauty is but skin deep.