Could a Chinese Herbal Remedy Save Ebola-Stricken Africa?

The first time I encountered this unusual Chinese herbal remedy was last winter when a healthcare colleague of mine’s husband was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) after having extensive surgery to remove a tumor. Like many post-op courses following complicated procedures, her husband’s condition was tenuous. He deteriorated, and his blood entered a state which is technically referred to as DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation), where the blood clots in certain parts of the circulatory system, but as a result of consuming clotting proteins leads to uncontrolled bleeding in other parts of the circulatory system. This is the one complication that is most dreaded of all in the ICU, since very few therapies can save a patient in DIC. As a result of this, the patient was bleeding out through all his intravenous access points, and even in his gut.

Once a person enters DIC, it is often fatal. You cannot give them blood or coagulation factors fast enough to stabilize the condition. This patient had been given only a few hours to live. Because his situation was almost hopeless, the hospital broke protocol and allowed the family to use a Chinese herbal remedy known as “yunnan baiyao,” which had been recommended by their acupuncturist. The caveat was the hospital staff could not administer it, so it had to be administered by the family members.  It was given as a powder dissolved in water through his feeding tube. Within the first hour of treatment his bleeding stopped, and soon thereafter his vital signs stabilized. He was kept on the remedy for 1 month thereafter, and has since recovered well.

This Chinese herbal remedy – yunnan baiyao (also known under the name yunnan paiyao) – sounded almost too good to be true. Her husband beat the odds, but could it have been a mere coincidence? After all, you cannot make broad-based statements about a remedy’s effectiveness based on one case report. The herbal remedy comes from the Yunnan province in China, where a Chinese herbalist named Qu Huanzhang formulated it in 1902. Yunnan baiyao means “white medicine from Yunnan.” One of its main ingredients is Panax pseudoginseng, which is a first aid medicine that can reduce severe bleeding, swelling, and pain. It was carried by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War in a tiny pill bottle on a chain around their necks in case of a gunshot wound or severe bleeding. However, it has paradoxical effects, as it is designed to reduce bleeding and at the same time improve circulation – both necessary in an emergency situation.

So I started looking into the literature on this herbal mixture. In veterinary medicine, yunnan baiyao has been used quite extensively to prevent hemorrhage in animals. It is a well-known pre-emptive remedy to avoid exercise-induced lung hemorrhage in race horses.  It has been studied as a topical agent for uncontrolled bleeding in adolescents with advanced cancer.[1]

In most cases yunnan baiyao has been used for 2 – 4 days; however, some illnesses may require a longer treatment. It is generally not intended to be used for more than 15 days, but in severe cases of internal bleeding it may be used for up to 30 days. In the case of Ebola, we have no experience with this herbal remedy, nor do I have first-hand experience on how to use it. Ebola’s most life-threatening consequence is uncontrolled internal bleeding and simultaneous blood clotting due to DIC, which may begin within 7 – 11 days of the onset of the illness. This eventually leads to organ failure and death.

Given yunnan baiyao’s ability to help control internal bleeding and improve the circulation at the same time (resolving internal blood clots), it may be a life-saving measure (as seen in the ICU patient) for those afflicted with Ebola in West Africa, where more expensive experimental drugs being used in Europe and the U.S. are not be available.

This is the protocol that may save Ebola-stricken patients:

At the first signs of or confirmation of Ebola infection, the patient should be started on 2 grams twice a day for 10 – 14 days. Since we have no experience with Ebola, it may be possible to treat the patient for 7 days within the most critical period, or it may require the full 14 day course. Given the number of people dying weekly from this virus, I believe there is only upside to testing this Chinese remedy. At worst, it will not save the lives which are being lost on a daily basis in Africa already, but in the best possible scenario it will help stop the massive amounts of deaths resulting from this deadly virus.

Again, I want to be clear that I have no way of knowing whether this Chinese herbal remedy would help Ebola patients. However, knowing and researching its uses in stopping hemorrhage in veterinary and surgical medicine, I can only extrapolate that it may offer hope to Africa and its afflicted.

I wanted to write this and get this information out there in the hopes that someone that can make a difference in Africa might pay attention.  I salute all of the brave medical personnel that have volunteered their time to go to West Africa to help save these innocent victims. I can only pray that we find a solution as soon as possible for this frightening virus before it spreads beyond our control at the rate of 10,000 new cases per week by January 2015, as predicted by the World Health Organization.

Sincerely,

Dr. Vincent Pedre

[1] Ladas, EJ, et al. Topical Yunnan Baiyao administration as an adjunctive therapy for bleeding complications in adolescents with advanced cancer.  Support Care Cancer. 2012 Dec;20(12):3379-83.
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