Neem has rightly been called sarvaroghari. Since time immemorial, Indians have learnt and made use of neem in a variety of ways both for personal and community health by way of environmental amelioration. Despite all the vicissitudes India has gone through over the centuries, neem has managed to remain a friend, philosopher and guide to an average Indian. It is time this heritage is appreciated and in area of promotional and preventive health care, our indigenous knowledge and resources are made use of on an increasing scale as low-cost, effective ingredient for the realization of the lofty goal of ‘Health for all’.
As Naveen Patnaik (1993, p. 40) says, “Possessed of many and great virtues, this native Indian tree has been identified on the five-thousand-year-old seals excavated from the Indus Valley Civilization”. How the tradition lives on has also been graphically brought out, “Today the margosa is valued more highly for its capacity to exercise the demon of disease than the spirit of the dead, and an image of the folk goddess Sitala can often be seen suspended from a margosa branch where she guards against small pox, once the great killer of the Indian country side. Renowned for its antiseptic and disinfection properties, the tree is thought to be particularly protective of women and children. Delivery chambers are fumigated with its burning bark (Margosa seed oil has been chemically tested as an external contraceptive, used by women as a spermicide). Dried margosa leaves are burned as mosquito repellent. Fresh leaves, notorious for their bitterness, are cooked and eaten to gain immunity from malaria.
Neem’s antiseptic properties are widely recognized now. “Neem preparations are reportedly efficacious against a variety of skin diseases, septic sores, and infected burns. The leaves, applied in the form of poultices or decoctions, are also recommended for boils, ulcers, and eczema. The oil is used for skin diseases such as scrofula, indolent ulcers and ringworm.
Cures for many diseases have been reported but these need to be confirmed independently by trials under controlled conditions. Laboratory tests have shown that neem is effective against certain fungi that infect the human body. Some important fungi against which neem preparations have been found to be effective are: athlete’s foot fungus that infects hair, skin and nails; a ringworm that invades both skin and nails of the feet; a fungus of the intestinal tract; a fungus that causes infections of the bronchi, lungs, and mucous membranes and a fungus that is part of the normal mucous flora that can get out of control leading to lesions in mouth (thrush), vagina, skin, hands and lungs.
Neem has been used traditionally in India to treat several viral diseases. Even many medical practitioners believe that smallpox, chicken pox and warts can be treated with a paste of neem leaves – usually rubbed directly on the infected skin. Experiments with smallpox, chicken pox, and fowl pox show that although neem does not cure these diseases, but it is effective for purposes of prevention. ‘Crude neem extracts absorb the viruses, effectively preventing them from entering unaffected cells.” Recent tests, although unconfirmed, have shown that neem is effective against herpes virus and the viral DNA polymerase of hepatitis B virus. Should these findings be confirmed, neem could be used to cure these dreadful diseases.
Its effectiveness is enhanced on account of its easy and plentiful availability and low cost along with the advantage – a big and critical advantage – of crating income and employment for the poor. Neem is effective against dermatological insects such as maggots and head lice. It is a common practice to apply neem all over the hair to kill head lice.
Rural inhabitants in India and Africa regularly use neem twigs as tooth brushes. Neem twigs contain antiseptic ingredients. That explains how these people are able to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Ayurveda describes neem as herbal drug which is used to clean the teeth and maintain dental hygiene. Neem in the form of powder is also used to brush teeth and massage gums.
Chagas disease is a major health problem in Latin America. It cripples millions of people there. Laboratory tests in Germany and Brazil show that neem may be an answer to this dreadful disease which so far remains largely uncontrollable. The disease is caused by a parasite which is spread by an insect called kissing bug. Extracts of neem have effects on the kissing bugs. Research has shown that ’feeding neem to the bugs not only frees them of parasites, but azadirachtin prevents the young insects from molting and the adults from reproducing’.
In Ayurvedic medicine system neem is used to treat malarial fevers. Recent experiments have shown that one of the neem’s components, gedunin (a limonoid), is as effective as quinine against malaria. Malaria affects millions of people and is responsible for about 2 million deaths every year in India and several other countries. China has adopted neem in a big way for its anti-malaria operation. Their formulation “Quinahausa” is going to become available in India as well. Neem oil treated mosquito nets and mosquito-repellent cheap tablets (one paise per tablet) are also becoming popular. Such mosquito nets presently available in the North-East have to be made available in the whole country (Swadeshi Patrika, chaitra-vaishak 2052). Because of growing problems of resistance to conventional treatments, it is becoming more and more difficult to control malaria. Should neem products prove effective cure against malaria, the dream of complete eradication of malaria might become a reality.
Neem is widely used for treating fevers. It has anti-pyretic (fever-reducing) property. In addition, neem products also have analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatroy effects, i.e. for most common ailments neem can provide cheap, easily-available and local entrepreneurship medicines.
With revival of interest in Ayurveda as an important, indigenous total health-care system, neem with its therapeutic properties and time-tested usage, more particularly as a household first – aid and safe self-administered medicine as well as a preventative help is bound to stage a big come back.
Dr. Suresh Chaturvedi (1995) has listed the uses of neem in pyrexia, diabetes, urinary problems, filarial, worms, respiratory disorders, dermatological disorders, gynecological disorders and by way of external use for eyes, piles and fistula, wounds, hair, dental hygiene and as fertility regulatory material; in addition to its ophthalmic and toiletries uses. However, there is a need for continued R & D and its transfer to the pharmaceutical industry.
A wide multitude of diseases or conditions can be successfully treated with various elements of neem.
Medical properties of Neem have been known to Indians since time immemorial. The Neem tree brings joy and freedom from various diseases.
It has proven beneficial or preventative for the following: