The UAE has become the region's leader in alternative medicine with its pioneering medical facility, the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine. Patients are coming from all over the GCC and Middle East to be treated because of its high success rates in curing and combating illnesses including diabetes and asthma. Established under the instruction of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the nation, in 1996, the not-for-profit centre pioneers treatments for illnesses using plants grown in the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed wanted to develop the country's system of alternative medicine to complement the already burgeoning modern health care system. The Zayed Complex in Abu Dhabi's Mafraq area now has more than 12,000 patients, and 20 per cent of these come from foreign countries including Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The team of experts oversees the process, from the collection of the plants found in the UAE, to the drying, testing and prescribing stages.
The complex, which has treated 100,000 patients since it opened, aims to export its products on an international scale and is now in the process of patenting its medications. Dr Ali Naji Mazen, the general director, said: "Sheikh Zayed loved agriculture and it was his interest in this and the idea of heritage preservation that led to the conception of the centre. "He wanted to prove the scientific use of things that have always been used here. People had lost trust in herbal medicine because there was no legislation governing or regulating the field until 2002, but since the centre has been established, people's perceptions have totally changed.
"We have the most success with chronic pain, which is the reason that 95 per cent of the patients come to us. It's usually chronic pain associated with an ongoing illness. "For acute pain or illness, we still acknowledge that people need immediate medicine from a mainstream hospital, but for ongoing or lifelong cases, such as diabetes, herbs have fewer side-effects and cause less harm to the body.
"Because of 'synergism', the herbs' multiple compounds, the herbal medicine works to prevent side-effects as well as curing the illness or helping the pain." Herbal medicine has been practised in the UAE for many years, and the centre has consulted local healers and herbalists to assist with its research. The complex's department of ethnobotany liaises with the country's local experts, as well as co-ordinating the collection, authentication and identification of local plants, which are a part of "folk" or traditional medicine.
They are now working with about 4,000 species of indigenous plants found in the Emirates. Among the 50 illnesses being treated by the complex is diabetes, second only to cancer as the country's biggest killer. The World Health Organisation has predicted that by 2019, about a quarter of the country's population will suffer from diabetes. The complex has not developed an alternative for insulin used by patients with type 1 diabetes, but it has produced a course of medication that works to overcome the non-insulin dependent type 2 disease.
"The herbs stop the absorption of glucose in the stomach and increases the metabolism of glucose in the cells," said Dr Mazen. "We don't yet have a substitute for insulin, but we are working on an oral alternative. However, patients who take the herbal substitutes can lead a more normal life thanks to the medication. "For those dependent on insulin, the pills can help reduce the amount needed, but for the type 2 cases, patients take a course of two capsules before they eat each meal."
Dr Mazen said the complex, which now provides a wide range of medicines imported from other countries, had cured three-quarters of its asthma sufferers. "Homoeopathy is the ideal way of treating it," he said. "First, we have to establish the cause of the asthma with a skin test. "We then treat them with a minute amount of the causal factor, whether it's dust, pollen, humidity or other external elements.
"For example, tiny particles of dust will be part of the medication prescribed in oral doses. The body will therefore recover and get used to it. "We prescribe patients a combination of homoeopathic and herbal capsules to take each day. The idea is to increase the immunity of the body so it fights the asthma from several fronts." Emiratis are treated for free and patients from other countries are asked to pay a small sum while the system becomes affiliated to a health insurance partner.