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Insect bites and old wives’ tales: the new science?

Friday 20 August 2004

Our hard-bitten country columnist John Sheard, who feels he is being eaten alive by insects this hot, wet summer, suggests we look back in time for some relief.

PEOPLE in the south of England are in a state of panic, it was reported earlier in the week, because they are being pestered by some nasty black and yellow invaders from France which are driving them off the beaches or out of their gardens.

Poor dears. The culprits were in fact hover flies which, although they have roughly the same colouring as a wasp, are in fact totally harmless. And, unlike a wasp, they hover – which every country child knows now and which, a generation ago, even townies would have been told by their parents.

Now this reflection of modern parenting – which means leaving the youngster alone in front of a TV screen for most of its waking hours – gave me a little light relief but, alas, did nothing to alleviate the awful itching which has had me scratching at virtually all parts of my body for most of this summer.

I hate to use insect repellents because they make my skin go dry so, like anyone who spends a great deal of time outdoors, I have been bitten red raw by myriad insect nasties which have been breeding like fury in this wet and warm summer.

A Mosquito

It got so bad this week that I drove some 30 miles to the only country chemist I know who stocks an ointment known as Witch Doctor, a funny, punny, sort of name but one which delivers a centuries old remedy: witch hazel balm.

Just when ancient man – or, most likely, ancient woman – discovered that crushing and boiling parts of the common witch hazel plant produced a balm that did wonders for insect bites is lost in the mists of time. I imagine its uses were well known when our ancestors were emerging from their caves.

And that is the point of this story. For most of the last century, arrogant scientists threw away hundreds of centuries of human experience in the search for chemistry-based medicines, some of which did more harm than good.

Yet the most commonly used drug of all time, aspirin, was finally "discovered" by modern scientists when they found out that Brazilian Indians had been extracting it from the bark of a tree for thousands of years.

And this Friday (August 20) it was announced that the best ever cure for malaria – the biggest killer in human history - had been discovered. From a plant called Artemesia annua, or Sweet Annie, which has again been used as a malaria cure in China for centuries.

To me, this is a supreme illustration of scientific arrogance. Anything old sucks and only the new – often the end result of research costing tens of millions of pounds – is worthwhile. The fact that this gave us thalidomide and possibly the human HIV virus is conveniently forgotten.

What did those men in the white coats think our forebears were up to? It took generation after generation over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to painstakingly experiment with thousands of plants to come up with their age-old remedies.

No doubt many died, too, from experiments that went wrong. But they created a whole pharmacy full of plant-based medicines which were still in use when I was a child: calamine lotion and, God help us, senna pods were just two I can remember.

But I can write this without leaving the keyboard to scratch because my bites have been liberally doused with witch hazel. In a gel, from a tube of course, but still derived from the same plant cave women rubbed into their infants.

Science has given us many benefits – and not a few disasters. I just hope that more and more researchers are beginning to look more closely at the old-wives'-tale school of medicine. They might not just do us good – they could be cheap too. And anything that could sooth the cash-strapped NHS's financial fevers in doubly welcome.

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