The first time Dr Cheng Sun Kaing saw people using the plant called daem kraw to treat malaria, he was living under the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
“At that time there was no medicine available for malaria,” Cheng Sun Kaing said. “So we cooked different plants that had a bitter taste.”
When used in combination with other plants, the green leafy daem kraw helped treat those who got sick with malaria while being forced to work in the fields of Prey Veng province during the Khmer Rouge years.
More than one million people are believed to have died under the Khmer Rouge from torture, disease, starvation and forced labor.
After the Khmer Rouge regime ended in 1979, Cheng Sun Kaing said he began studying pharmacology and working for the National Center for Traditional Medicine.
Nearly 20 years later, Cheng Sun Kaing began studying the plant that helped him and others live through the Khmer Rouge era.
Earlier this month, Cheng Sun Kaing returned from France’s Faculty of Pharmacology in Marseilles, where he said he was invited to research the plant for two months.
Most of the tests on the plant’s effectiveness in fighting malaria are still not conclusive, Cheng Sun Kaing said. The tests are important because there is no scientific evidence on whether or how daem kraw or other plants used by traditional medical practitioners in Cambodia work, Cheng Sun Kaing said.
“There are many kinds of plants we use to help cure malaria,” he said. “But we do not have any labs here to analyze what is in the plants that helps people.”
Among the most popular plants is the daem bromat manuh, or literally, “human bile plant.” “Bitter plants are the best plants to treat malaria,” Cheng Sun Kaing said.
A derivative of a milennia-old Chinese herbal remedy extracted from the wormwood plant, artemesia annua is being used to help treat some of the most drug-resistant strains of malaria. Artemisine has been in use in Cambodia for a few years already and can help cure people of the parasite that causes malaria in less time and with fewer side effects than other commonly used drugs, said Dr Doung Socheat, vice-director of the National Malaria Center in the Ministry of Health.
Malaria is one of Cambodia’s greatest killers, claiming thousands of lives every year, health experts say.
Cheng Sun Kaing doesn’t know if any of his research will lead to the next Artemisine, but said people all over the world are interested in herbal medicines. And when taken correctly, some of the plants on Cheng Sun Kaing’s list are less toxic and have fewer side effects than chemical alternatives, he claimed.