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Growing number of U.S.-Mexican border residents using herbs to treat ailments, creating potential problems

More and more residents along the U.S.-Mexican border are using herbal products instead of conventional medicines to treat health problems and are failing to inform a physician about the use — an omission that makes them at risk for potentially dangerous drug interactions, the findings of a new study show.

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AUSTIN, Texas—More and more residents along the U.S.-Mexican border are using herbal products instead of conventional medicines to treat health problems and are failing to inform a physician about the use — an omission that makes them at risk for potentially dangerous drug interactions, the findings of a new study show.

According to the research, some 59 percent of the population in El Paso use some kind of herbal product, a much higher percentage than the national average of 12 percent. The study indicates that similar statistics prevail in other Texas border cities like Brownsville and Laredo — in fact the use of herbal products in El Paso could be extended to most Mexican American communities, said Dr. Jose Rivera, assistant dean in The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy and director of the University of Texas at El Paso-UT Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program.

Rivera

  

Rivera

The custom of using herbs is part of the Hispanic culture, but the study also shows that the use is more common among poor Hispanics who may lack health insurance, Rivera said. Researchers found that only 31 percent of patients using home remedies ever report their use to a conventional health care provider.

The two-phase, three-year study is being funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and the Center for Border Health Research, which awarded the Cooperative Pharmacy Program nearly $300,000 to help it develop a plan promoting the safe use of herbal remedies and alternative medicines along the border. The results of the first phase of the study — the evaluation of the use of alternative medicines like herbs — will be published in the February issue of Pharmacotherapy.

The second phase of the study began recently and will have research and educational components. Researchers will gather information from the general population, surgical patients, the elderly and herbal product providers on both sides of the border in an effort to develop an extensive education program for healthcare providers and their patients.

“We hope to boost awareness among border-area health care providers so they can advise patients of the dangers of using some herbal remedies and explain the right way to use them,” Rivera said. In addition to presentations and publications, the educational effort includes plans for a Web site containing photographs and information about commonly used herbs, less known regional herbs and information on studies related to herbal products.

The trend for using alternative medicines continues to increase at a significant rate nationally, Rivera said. But most of the previous studies have included few Hispanics.

In the first phase of the study, Rivera and his team found that the most common herbal or home remedies used were chamomile and aloe vera. The most common nutritional or commercial products were multivitamins, ginseng and gingko biloba.

“We identified 600 instances that could potentially result in drug interactions, disease interactions or adverse reactions secondary to herbal product use,” Rivera said. “For that reason, we wanted to look at this more carefully.”

Aside from toxic effects, other remedies may be potentially dangerous due simply to inefficacy. One of the cases the researchers looked at was a report involving a patient who developed Stage IV hypertension after replacing her medications with an herbal treatment. She had been taking labetolol and captopril for more than a year, but for financial reasons, she discontinued these and purchased a commercially available herbal product containing an extract from a small fruit-bearing tree known as zapote blanco. The active ingredient is unknown. The patient ended up in the emergency room. Part of the education effort concerns the use of herbal products before surgery. It is recommended, for example, that patients stop taking herbal products two to three weeks prior to surgery due to possible interactions with drugs used during surgery and other complications.

“Education then is a key ingredient and with this second phase. We’re in the early stages, but we’re moving quickly,” Rivera said.

The university established the joint cooperative programs to address the challenge of providing high levels of pharmaceutical care to all Texans. The joint program with the University of Texas at El Paso was established in 1995 to encourage local residents to consider careers in pharmacy.

In the current studies, researchers also are working with physicians at Texas Tech University Health Services Center in El Paso.

Rivera can be contacted at (915) 747-8535.