A woman in Khanh Hoa Province spreads pieces of xao tam phan to dry. A local family has been using the remedy for years, but a recent confirmation by the Health Ministry that the plant prevents cancerous growth in white mice has kicked off a rush for it
A November announcement by the Health Ministry about a local herb able to contain growth of cancer cells in mice has put the herb in danger of extinction and severely damaged its mountainous habitat.
Hundreds of cancer patients have flocked to the central province of Khanh Hoa, where the herb was found, seeking a cure from a local man who makes concoctions with the herb, while hordes of people are digging up the province for the plant. Then there are those who are cheating people by selling fake concoctions or plants that look like the original.
Khanh Hoa health authorities are angry about crowds rushing to Luong The Kiet, a construction worker also known as Luong Sinh, for herbal cancer treatment and have said they would close him down.
They said the rush makes no sense as the plant has not been tested on humans and Sinh does not hold a medical license.
"Before any scientific evidence about the medical effects of the plant and before Sinh has a license, we suggest people follow hospitals' advice," Le Huu Tho, deputy director of the Khanh Hoa Health Department, said at a press briefing earlier this month.
The department has proposed that the Health Ministry quickly tests the plant on humans and suggest how it can be used, if found effective.
The plant, xao tam phan (Paramignya trimera) from the Rutaceae or citrus family, has been found to contain antioxidants.
Sinh, now in his 40s, said his father passed on to him the treatment for liver cancer 12 years ago, and that the family remedy includes five herbs, with xao tam phan being the major ingredient. He has been providing the treatment for free.
Some locals, including those having last-stage cirrhosis, have reportedly said early this year that they tried Sinh's remedy and it has given them good results, with their belly swellings gone and some of them testing negative for cancer after sometime.
One of the patients, Le Hang, began trading in the plant and has been boasting about his ability to cure cancer for about two years now, ever since he was cured by Sinh of last-stage cirrhosis. He offers money to people for providing him the plant, as unlike Sinh, he does not offer his treatment for free, Nguoi Lao Dong reported late December.
All the stories prompted the Health Ministry to test the plant and its announcement on November 14 only catalyzed a rush for the remedy from Sinh, with Hang also winning some customers. Besides, people rushed to the province to harvest the plant.
The ministry's National Institute of Medicinal Materials tested the plant on white mice and found it can push back acute hepatitis, contain or destroy cancer cells of five types of cancer liver, colorectal, breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer.
It also found that the plant's toxicity is low and safe for consumption.
Sinh himself said he does not have "scientific knowledge" about the effects of the herb on humans, but most people coming to him are in the terminal stages of cancer and have lost all other hopes, so he could not send them away.
Khanh Hoa Health Department said it would allow last-stage patients to try this as a final option, but only if Sinh applies for a permit to use the herb.
Patients coming to see Sinh have had to register with the chairman of Ninh Giang Ward, Ninh Hoa Town, for an appointment.
The chairman, Trinh Xuan Thanh, told Tuoi Tre he wanted to limit the number of people coming to Sinh's house. Thanh said he's aware that Sinh does not have a license but is doing a good deed, so he does not want to bluntly shut him down. He has created the registration procedure to place some checks on the treatment.
Close to extinction
But the bigger problem that the provincial government has not been able to do much about is the demand for the plant.
The Khanh Hoa administration last week assigned its agriculture department to carry out a project to preserve the plant's genetic source, prevent "illegal" exploitation of the plant and begin cultivating it on a larger scale.
It is not clear whether this action can be effective with the rush on for at least two months now, according to a Tuoi Tre report in November.
People rushed to climb the Hon Heo Mountain, where the plant grows. The plant grows in rocky areas and people have to move many rocks to pull the plant out by its roots. Large areas of the mountain have been ravaged, making it look like a giant gold mine.
Large plants were already hard to find in the middle of December and people were not hesitating to pluck out young ones as well.
Nguyen Van Hung, a local, said each young plant can be sold for VND7,000 (34 US cents).
"You'd better hurry or there'll be nothing left soon."
Local authorities have sent soldiers to stop people from going to the mountain, saying that they could only punish people for deforestation. There is no regulation against plucking or trading in herbs and plants.
Tra Thi Bong Sen, a commune chairwoman, said, "If government agencies don't intervene in time, xao tam phan will become extinct here."
Sinh said whenever he sees people rushing up to Hon Heo he feels hurt.
"It's not that I want to keep the remedy to myself, but it's cruel that you eradicate the plant to benefit from the pain of sick people.
"Xao tam phan is as strong as sweet potato, growing only on some roots. I have many times intervened in the rush persuading people to please leave some roots for the plant to grow but they did not listen," he was quoted as saying in a Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper report in December.
Experts said the plant is also found in the nearby provinces of Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Phu Yen and the southern province of Binh Duong but in lesser profusion. No rush has been reported so far in these localities.
Many local fishermen who know nothing about herbal medicine have joined the rush in Hon Heo as the price of the plant has surged recently, and they are also plucking any plant that looks similar to xao tam phan.
Almost all fakes
Sinh said more than one-third of what is sold on the market is not the right plant, while some local officials fear nearly all of them could be fake as the natural supply has almost run out.
Despite this, the price of the plant in December surged five times from VND200,000 ($9.6) a kilogram a month earlier.
Many people have fallen for the fake herbs as they rushed to buy for fear prices would go further up.
Nguoi Lao Dong said at least one man has died from drinking water boiled with a fake plant.
Several people told the newspaper they almost died too from using some plant sold in the market, but they were saved later by Sinh.
Sinh said xao tam phan has stripes on its bark like snake's skin, and when the bark is removed, the inner stem is smooth and fragrant. The leaves of the real plant are dark green and hard to pluck.
He says that even with the real plant, people have to know what
"Each part of the plant has different effects, people with light condition can be treated with the stem but heavy condition needs the root. The processing is also different for different patients, and the time the plant is plucked morning or afternoon, when it's rainy or sunny, also decides its effect," Sinh said, noting that he usually plucks the plant at sunrise.
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