Allopathy and Ayurveda: Need for an Informed Debate

June 03, 2021

A very passionate debate is ongoing in India on the relevance and effectiveness of Allopathy and Ayurveda, two different (modern and traditional) branches of medicine. In respect of Covid-19 handling, there was an attempt to debunk the relevance of allopathic treatment. In response to this, the Indian Medical Association (IMA), an NGO, has taken a very aggressive stance and stood against demeaning allopathy.

India is one such country that remains in awe of its past. History indicates that India was culturally and financially prosperous before the centuries-long foreign invasions. Rightfully so, Indians are proud of Ayurveda, which is an ancient Indian therapeutic system. Many Indians believe in Ayurveda based medical treatment and are known to have good results towards curing some ailments. At the same time, there have been constant efforts to push this medical system as the panacea for all forms of diseases. However, the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the limitations of this form of treatment to address any public health emergency.

It is important to note that Ayurveda has its strengths and limitations from a medical science perspective. Debating Allopathy vs Ayurveda (or modern vs traditional) needs to be handled with a scientific mindset and not at the emotional or cultural level. It is well understood that Allopathy and Ayurveda are markedly different, even though helpful in treating or managing ailments effectively. Yet, it is imperative to debate the efficacy of these systems of medicine, particularly in the present context. An informed debate is essential because even at the Covid-19 pandemic, various conflicting signals have given to the people by undercutting one medical system against another.

The term allopathy got coined in 1810 by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who is interestingly the father of another stream of alternative medicine ‘Homeopathy’. The science of allopathy is known to have arrived in India around 1920, during the period of British occupation. Since then, a good amount of research works have been happening in India in allopathic treatment. India’s infrastructure and expertise are reorganised globally in the area of drug and vaccine manufacturing.

It is not only in India, but in various other parts of the world too, several non-allopathic methods of treatment are put in use. As per the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, about 70–80% of the world populations rely on nonconventional medicines in their healthcare. Such treatments constitute mainly herbal and natural sources. In the Covid-19 era, it has been observed that apart from India, mostly there has been no talk in other parts of the world (except China) about relying on alternative forms of medicines to cure the coronavirus infection. There are reports that the Chinese government promotes traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as treatments for COVID-19. They have shared such medications with countries including Iran and Italy as international aid. But there is no well-founded research available to conclude that such therapies are safe and effective. Today, the Chinese vaccine (e.g. Sinovac) has reached or approved by several countries. However, there is not much talk about TCM, indicating that possibility they are not effective.   

It is well understood that allopathy has some drawbacks, like side effects and limitations towards healing or curing definite chronic illnesses. Typically, Ayurvedic treatment gets sold as a treatment without any side effects. However, that is not the case. Present generation Ayurvedic medicines, in some instances, does contain a noticeable quantity of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury.

Broadly, allopathy depends on the relationship between cells, tissues and organs. This form of medical treatment is hugely science and technology-oriented. The research and development (and therapy) expands on the basic sciences and works with advanced technologies for diagnostic procedures, drugs and vaccine development. The Covid-19 has been and continues to remain a challenge for allopathy. This science has delivered more than any other form of medical treatment during the last year or so. In record time, the scientific community at the global level have delivered the vaccines. It is a reality that only vaccines will help control the spread of this disease globally.

The commoner’s faith in alternative medicines is possibly understandable to a certain extent since the allopathic treatment for the Covid-19 cure is not yet fully established. The most sought-after treatments like convalescent plasma therapy or antiviral or anti-inflammatory agents such as Remdesivir or Dexamethasone are no longer the favoured line of treatment. Even though the generic steroid dexamethasone is helpful to some extent, now there are fears that steroid treatment given to patients with comorbidities could be the possible reasons for fungal infections Mucormycosis. However, it is essential to understand that no medical treatment could be 100% full proof. Allopathy is continuously experimenting with rapidly and differently mutating coronavirus. All these efforts are happening based on some well-established protocols and scientific mythologies. What needs to be looked at is the success of Allopathy treating coronavirus globally. From testing to treatment, all modern methods have proven their effectiveness since the outbreak of the pandemic. The vaccine is the only known (and successful) method for pandemic eradication.

Both during the first wave and second wave of Covid-19, it has been found that people are turning to hospitals that offer allopathic treatment. The focus on complementary medicines has been more for improving immunity. There is no clear-cut evidence available to prove that non-allopathic treatments have cured the Covid-19 infections.   

Unfortunately, the Indian society has many ardent followers or devotees who believe more in faith than science. It is said that a person may be ‘literate’ but not ‘educated’. This description fits perfectly with a section from Indian society regarding the issues related to health. Interestingly, at present many sensible minds in the Indian society are seen attempting to avoid any form of confrontations or civil conversations on this issue and are found taking a very meek position by observing both the branches (modern and Traditional) are important. However, the problem is not of importance, but that of relevance for the present. Undeniably, at this point, to save human lives, allopathy is a necessary form of medication available. This is the time to have an informed debate on this issue and expose the people who deviously use India’s cultural ethos and traditional Indian medicinal system to suit their agenda.

Author Note
Dr Ajey Lele, Senior Fellow, The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.