Discovering Pharmacy & Modern Medicine in the Rainforest

March 28, 2011
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Those who come to the vast Amazon rainforest to learn about the jungle’s natural bounty of medicinal plants often encounter a complex combination of medicine and spiritual ritual administered by a local Shaman. While sometimes overlooked by those studying modern medicine, the Amazon’s medicinal plants and Shamans provide a vital link between nature’s ecosystems, ancient medicine and modern cures.

That’s where International Expeditions and the Washington State Pharmacy Association’s Amazon Healthcare Adventure comes in. During this nine-day workshop, guests connect with leading medical researchers and traditional healers for an in-depth look at pharmacy from the rainforest.

As the native people vanish along the Amazon’s riverbanks, their knowledge of natural medicines is disappearing as well. Passed down from generation to generation, there are still a number of traditional Shaman who serve multiple villages. Traditional healers will discuss how wounds are cleaned using a tree sap with antiseptic properties; why Shamen brew tea with the “helocis” fungus to treat asthma; and explain how a combination of ceremony and a thin-stalked plant are used to prevent pregnancy.

During their nine days, guests will visit medicinal plant gardens, including the ReNuPeru Botanical Garden. The garden was assembled under the direction of former USDA head botanist Dr. James Duke, one of the world’s leading experts on medicinal plants. The ReNuPeru garden allows visitors to learn about many of the highly beneficial plant medicines in the Amazon, in the company of trained guides who grew up in the forest.

This informative workshop won’t just look at traditional medicine. Guests will also explore the impact of Western medicine in the region, and learn how cultural considerations impact treating locals.

For former Amazon workshop guest Dr. Linnea Smith, her time on an Amazon rainforest tour was truly a life-changing journey that is now having a positive impact on the people of the rainforest. This Wisconsin-based doctor gave up her practice to open a medical clinic in 1990 serving the Yagua and Ribereno people of the Upper Amazon Basin.

Until Linnea arrived, the local people had no access to health care. Now as many as 3,000 patients arrive each year to the Amazon Medical Clinic — most by dug-out canoe or on foot — seeking treatment for malaria, infectious diseases, dental care, and even prenatal care and birthing.

But as Dr. Smith described in a recent letter to supporters of the Amazon Medical Clinic, even when guests seek vaccinations and modern medical treatment, they may still cling to ancient practices. For example, when a woman recently came in seeking medical attention for a stomach ache and Dr. Smith suggested she might be pregnant, the local woman thought she was protected because she “had been afflicted with mal de gente, or witchcraft, and had been under the care of a brujo for several months.”

Interested in learning more about the links between the natural world, drug discovery, global health and professional practices? Join colleagues, medical researchers and expert Peruvian guides for a week of adventure, exploration and discovery during International Expeditions' Amazon Pharmacy From the Rainforest expedition in July 2011. Continuing education credits are available through the Washington State Pharmacy Association.