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Expert Article: Understanding Infectivity And Its Prevention Through Ayurveda

It is a general idea that Ayurveda can't be used in pandemics, and there is no description of epidemics in Ayurveda. This belief is baseless; the ancient scholar Charaka described that the mass extinction of can occur due to pandemic (common disease occurring in a person with a different constitution - genetic makeup in the same period), use of weapons of mass destructions, biological weapons, and abhishap (curse).

The microbial disease occurs due to infections and contact. The spread of infection may occur due to direct contact or through air, water and vector. The disease is the result of successful parasitism, i.e. mere presence of microbe is not the infection or infectious disease, but the disease is the result of certain events that take place within the body, and that leads to disease. The chain of events includes invasion of microbe into body, body inflammation response, the release of toxins, and this change leads to characteristic presentation of illness. An Ayurved physician would also consider these changes for understanding and managing microbial illness as Ayurveda believes in individualised medical care.

Sushruta (father of surgery) opined that skin diseases, pyrexia & infections, tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, etc., can spread through direct contact. The spread of infection happens due to direct physical contact like skin to skin contact, droplet spread in close proximity, eating together, sleeping together, sexual contact, sharing bed, ornaments and cosmetics.

Acharya Charaka narrates that the pandemic occurs due to four factors viz. Vayu (airborne), Udak (water), Desha (area - vector-borne) and Kala (virulence). The details of these factors are as follows:

  1. Vayu - vitiated Vayu, i.e. air, is the first factor that brings about Janapadodwansa, i.e. epidemics. Vayu not good in quality is responsible for pandemics and major health problems. Acharya Charaka narrates that when air gets polluted, changed movements of air (increased wind blow, circulating winds, and no wind movements), excessive dryness in the air, increased temperature, increased coldness, and other changes in qualities lead to Janapadodhwansha. Vitiation in air quality is the cause of disease that may be infectious, pollution problems, etc. It includes an airborne spread of infection, including droplets. The dust, pollutants, and microbe lead to changes in the quality of air; these changes lead to diseases.
  2. Udak - udak means water, i.e. the diseases that occur due to the use of contaminated water. Charaka Samhita narrates that water is considered as contamination if water has bad order, different types of colours, bad tastes, excessive viscus, pollution by biological impurities, chemical impurities, physical changes that may bring diseases. This also includes the transmission of disease by the faecal-oral route and food-water contamination.
  3. Desha - Desha is the third factor for pandemic and mass extinctions. This factor involves soil pollution and vector-borne disease. When the animals and insect growth is excess in any area, they lead to the spread of disease. The disease that spreads through biological agents is known as vector communicable diseases, viz. malaria, dengue, etc. Charaka Samhita narrates that Desha (area) with the following characteristics may lead to mass extinction and pandemics viz. area with unpleasant and foul smell, texture, colour, excessive humidity, excessive growth of reptiles, dogs, insects, flies, mosquito, etc.
  4. Kala - Kala refer to time or season. This factor is not given importance in the conventional modern medical system. Time is considered the most important factor that favours parasitism. This is considered as the effect of the season on the human body, i.e. circadian rhythm and virulence rhythm in the case of microbes. It has been observed certain disease runs with the season; virulence of the organism changes as per season, and hence the pandemic is observed during specific seasons. Viral disease has been observed in certain months only; for instance, an influenza pandemic is observed in the winter season (Dec to Feb) in the northern hemisphere and the rainy season in the southern hemisphere. In India, the pandemic periods of influenza is observed in two seasons, i.e. autumn and spring. This knowledge of pandemics was known for ages, and certain preventive measures were incorporated as religious or routine practices.

One such practice is observing the Holi festival and using newly harvested food with dry properties like bangal gram, not using salt in Chaitra Rutu (March-April) during spring months. In certain parts of northern India, there is the practice of bloodletting in spring, and in the rest of India, it may be used during the autumn season. This simple practice of bloodletting restricts the pathogenic process and clotting inside the body. Ayurveda advocates that spring is the season of the predominance of Kapha, and hence Vamana (therapeutic emesis) may be performed, i.e. Vasantik Vamana in the season. The vitiated Kapha, i.e. morbid material removed from the body, provides resistance to disease process hinders pathologic process in the body, and thus an individual will remain healthy and disease-free. Similarly, in the Autumn season, Pitta predominates, and purgation is considered the best modality for removing morbid Pitta. Thus in the autumn season, Virechana (therapeutic purgation) is advised. Bloodletting may also be performed in the season as blood is the body humour (Doshas) that flows through the media blood.

Impacts of These Factors on Pandemic

These four factors have increasing effects on pandemic and mass extinction. Air is considered to have the least impact as one can shift from one place to another, and by certain purification measures, the spread of disease and impact on pandemic can be controlled. Water has little more impact on pandemics than air as large geographical may be dependent on the same water source. The use of cleaning techniques reduces the chances of the spread of disease. Desha or area has more impact of the pandemic as there may be an abundance of factors of spread of pandemic are present, i.e. direct and vector-borne and lastly the effect of Kala is maximum on pandemics. No one can prevent Kala effects. This is due to decreased resistance and increased virulence in microbe leads to epidemics & pandemics.

Prevention from Pandemic

Ancient Ayurveda text narrates how to prevent oneself from the pandemic in detail. The use of Rasayana is the first on the list. Rasayana is a specialised treatment modality used to prevent disease (communicable & non-communicable), promotive and curative (cure of chronic infection, metabolic and non-communicable disease). This may be performed with the long term use of medicaments or indoor procedures based. Periodical detoxication of the body by seasonal purification corrects the body's natural homeostasis, and thus, the disease doesn't occur or if manifests with mild symptoms only. This is a means of improving non-specific immunity in the body.

Diet regimen and daily regimen according to season ought to be performed, and lastly ideal behavioural practice. This is called Achara Rasayana that improves the intra-personal, interpersonal relationship and brings harmony in the psyche. This has positive effects on the function of the immune system and neurological system. Today, science focuses on the interaction of the psyche, nervous system and immune system of the body and positive psyche through the axis of psycho-neuro-immunology, which may improve body immunity and resistance against disease.

Ancient Ayurveda scholars must be knowing the relationship as there is enough textual reference for observing Sadvruta and the positive effects of Sadvruta on health and harmony. The quote of Charaka "one who is not observing Sadachar may not have positive effects of Rasayana treatment modality but observing Sadachar also known as Achara Rasayana alone will have a positive effect on health & wellbeing of the individual. This implies that the ancient scholar must have an understanding of the complex relationship of the psyche and its effect on immunology & the nervous system.

This article is based on the description of the chapter on the mass extinction of Charaka Samhita. For more details, one may contact Ayurveda physician or Ayurveda college.