Hong Kong — HONG KONG — A popular herb called ban lan gen, or blue root, has been flying off pharmacy shelves across China as local governments encourage people to consider traditional remedies to ward off the latest bird flu virus.
With scientists so far unable to pinpoint the H7N9 influenza virus' animal host, locals are preparing for a possible pandemic by stocking up on popular plant remedies as well as face masks and hand sanitizers and other over-the- counter medicines.
"Chinese people associate ban lan gen with anti-virus," said Shen Jiangang, assistant director for research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Chinese Medicine. "So when they hear about bird flu, they immediately think it might be effective to protect themselves although there is no experimental evidence."
Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines have used the remedy for centuries. Scientists have proved it can relieve bacterial conjunctivitis in eye drops and found it has an antiviral effect in test tubes. There is no test to show it works against influenza.
That hasn't stopped buyers. Chinese consumers, especially older ones, tend to believe in traditional formulations especially when it comes to cold and flu remedies, said Iwona Mamczur, an analyst at Mintel International Group Ltd. The market for over-the-counter medicines was worth 77.5 billion yuan ($12.5 billion) in 2011, according to a report from the London-based researcher.
Ban lan gen is the root of a flowering plant known as dyer's woad or indigo woad, and found in southeastern Europe, central Asia and eastern Siberia. The roots are dried and often processed into granules, which consumers ingest dissolved in hot water or tea. According to traditional Chinese medicine, which seeks to balance heat and cold in the body, the root can help clear the heat triggered by a viral attack, Shen said.