Beware Herbal Medicines: Indonesia

I can recall the very first time I tried Jamu, the traditional herbal medicine. It was at Candika’s house and I was offered this bottle of oddly coloured fluid. Much to the amusement of the family (probably the grimace of my face!), I managed to swallow the contents of the bottle. I must admit it was, shall we say, different.

Many low-income people have decided to use traditional potions and drugs following the prolonged economic crisis that hit the country in 1997. Ridwan Max Sijabat explains about these herbal remedies and to be aware when using them.

Many go to paranormals to seek traditional healing to treat their diseases, while others take traditional drugs, including herbal medicines, to cure their pain. Only the better-off still visit hospitals or doctors and can afford expensive conventional drugs.
Herbal medicines, known locally as jamu, are very easy to find.

If you need them, you can go to foodstalls, jamu stands in your neighborhood or traditional markets. If you have a headache you can take akar pinang; if you feel weak jamu kuat; if feeling poorly during menstruation take subur sejati and if you want to enhance your sexual prowess, take kapsul romantis or kuku bima.

Sometimes, jamu products are said to be able to treat several pains or diseases simultaneously. There are many kinds of jamu claimed to be able to treat almost all diseases, including cancer — even HIV/AIDS.

However, customers need to be careful when consuming herbal medicines, especially those said to be efficacious for physical disorders or syndromes, for many jamu products that are not registered by the Directorate General of Food and Drugs at the Health Ministry are produced without authorization and do not live up to their claims.

Most unauthorized jamu are made of simple herbal raw materials in combination with dangerous chemical substances that, according to laboratory experiments, produce dangerous side effects in the long run. These are often attributable to the chemicals they use.

The government recently issued a list of unauthorized traditional drugs produced by cottage industries in Central and East Java and Makassar, South Sulawesi. The list is based on the results of laboratory testing by the Directorate General for Food and Drugs.

These include: Asam Urat, Akar Pinang, Jamu Sesak Nafas, Amrat, Kapsul Romantis, Pegel Linu, Flu Burung, Jamu Ginseng Super, Gemuk Sehat and Subur Sejati. They are produced in Cirebon, Surabaya, Semarang, Jakarta, Makassar, Bandung, Cilacap and Banyumas.

Laboratory testing has shown they have been produced by using dexametason or fenilbutason. One side effect caused by overdosing on dexametason is liver inflammation and osteoporosis; fenilbutason can cause lung irritation.

The police recently raided unauthorized producers in West, Central and East Java and at least 17 cases have already been taken to court for trial.

Chairman of the Indonesian Jamu Producers Association (GP Jamu) Charles Saerang has given several tips to anyone who might be thinking of consuming traditional drugs. First, he said, consumers should identify which traditional drugs have been registered by the government. Second, consumers should go to jamu stalls to seek registered products and accurate information.

Third, traditional herbal medicines do not have a direct effect on consumers. Herbal medicines will only have an effect if consumers take them regularly for at least three months; they may cause side effects, though, he told a hearing of House of Representatives Commission IX on health here recently.

Saerang, also president of jamu producer PT Nyonya Meneer in Semarang, Central Java, said licensed jamu producers source their raw materials from many varieties of tropical plant across the archipelago and their products are tested by the government regularly.

The trade in traditional herbal medicines totals about Rp 2 trillion (about US$190 million) annually, including exports to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Middle East and Russia.

Ridwan Max Sijabat