Authors: Colin Michie FRCPCH, Moe Ameri and Luis Suarez

American University of the Caribbean Medical School, Cupecoy, St. Martin

In September 2017, Denis, a security worker in Philipsburg, was preparing for the arrival of a serious storm. Weather reports were warning that a hurricane named Irma was becoming stronger; it was likely to be powerful and was heading directly for St. Martin. Denis cleared his yard and boarded up two windows.

The family decided to stay in the house; they stored some water, rice, milk powder and canned food. That evening, they had a meal with the neighbours. They all had moringa tea, as they always did – a moringa tree grew over their shared fence. Although the hurricane was due to arrive later that night, the island seemed curiously quiet.

By the next evening, the violent, destructive and incredibly noisy storm had passed. Denis and his family were safe. Their house was secure, but the garden shed had disappeared, along with the patio roof, rain drains, fences and half the moringa tree. A car had been rolled up against the front door.

What effect did Hurricane Irma have on bush tea use?

This newspaper supplement is devoted to disaster medicine. One interesting question is whether following a disaster, there is disruption to traditional medicine practises, such as bush teas. Hurricanes develop during the rainy season in the Caribbean so bushes and trees are in full leaf at the time and therefore most likely to be seriously damaged by powerful wind.

Denis and his family were fortunate to find another moringa in a sheltered spot two days after Irma; it still had some leaves.

Their own tree recovered rapidly and so they continued to make their daily bush tea tonic, although many other aspects of their lives have yet to return to normal. This year, they are hoping any storm will be mild. Their moringa tree is strong and they do not intend storing any leaves or pods.

Bush teas are used by most of those living in St. Martin. They are a common drink and form of traditional medicine. They are part of a way of life.

These leaves anchor all St. Martiners to the plants and soil of their island. Talking to islanders, medical students of the American University of the Caribbean Medical School have found that the teas are used for many purposes: Preventing disease, keeping the children healthy, getting rid of worms, helping sleep or treating headaches topped the list of applications.

Many describe how during their childhoods on other islands, their parents used teas too. St. Martin is like any other country with its own traditions passed from generation to generation. Some members of St. Martin’s communities are specialists in the use of bush tea and provide advice to others as herbalists.

People living in Philipsburg and Marigot have described to medical students how they used bush tea after Irma. No one stopped using bush teas. Some had difficulty finding leaves for a week or two. A number changed to using a different type of bush tea. Many obtained leaves from friends or other family members.

Only a small number of people stored leaves. One person had a small supply of dried leaves they shared after the hurricane. Everyone described how rapidly their bush tea supplies recovered after the disaster. Some found it easier to continue with their bush teas than to get a resupply of prescription medicines.

The students concluded that using bush tea is a particularly robust tradition. Despite the widespread havoc caused by a powerful weather event, the use of these was not significantly affected.

What is the origin of bush tea?

Traditional medicines are how our species cared for themselves in the pre-pharmacy age of several hundred thousand years. Caribbean bush teas are based on a rich oral tradition rooted in all those peoples who have passed through and lived on these islands and surrounding continents.

Medicinal plants of great variety remain the most commonly employed traditional medication in Africa and South, Central and North America. Refugees and immigrants in America and Europe continue to use traditional medicines in the same fashion as they did in their homelands.

Some parts of the world developed written herbals, some of which are several thousand years old. Records from Greek surgeons who treated Roman soldiers, the older Shennon Bencaojing from China and the script by Atrea in India documenting the Aurvedic tradition are examples of this.

An Aztec herbal was prepared by a Spanish record of traditions practised by that civilisation. These medicines like many other traditional practices have been a source of conflict, war and cultural dominance.

The great diversity of plants in the Caribbean and Central America is linked to many centuries of human use. Healers were part of Taino tribes, just as they were among slaves brought from West Africa, indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent and others.

Each brought their methods of treating themselves and animals too. As a result, local traditional medicine is an important method of maintaining a diversity of plants, supporting biodiversity in the tropics.

An innovative code

So why is this news for a newspaper? There is one particularly important reason. World Health Organisation (WHO) has now formally recognised traditional medicine. Every 10 years, WHO publishes a catalogue of known diseases.

The 11th edition of this International Classification of Disease (ICD) was released in 2018 and will be used by health workers from 2022. This means that doctors and nurses will begin to list and classify details of the traditional practices employed by their patients. This might be a crucial first step towards herbal uhuru. By permitting codification of traditional medicines, the basis and values of them may be at least defined, classified and compared.

World Health Organisation has estimated that approximately 80% of the world’s population utilises traditional medicine. This number may not surprise you, until you think that this must include urban populations in North America, Europe, India, South East Asia and China who now have access to pharmacological therapies.

This large figure suggests that a great majority continue to employ healthcare methods, systems or treatments that have been used by their ancestors, relatives and families.

Our fellow inhabitants on this planet, including WHO, have common enthusiasms that can unify us: Our beliefs in what we think will do us good. Bush tea use survived Irma. Strong traditional practices often persist despite disruptors. We can learn much from disasters.

From St. Martin Poet Laurelle Yaya Richards’ poem: Silk Cotton Grow

Pick a branch of my Indian mint

Take a leaf from my jasmine purple flowers

Make a tea for the baby, from the jaundice,

And me, which is a silk cotton tree,

I give you medicine from the top to the root.