Can leaves from the common papaya treat tough viruses like Zika?
Chikungunya and Zika are scary because they are nasty viruses without an effective drug treatment. So, people are finding their own options. One of those is a simple remedy readily available in the tropics – papaya leaf.
Tracking Viruses In Mexico
Last week, I was in the Yucatan chasing viruses. I heard that an entire Mayan village contracted Chikungunya, and I wanted to learn more.
Cheblekal is a small town of several hundred people of Mayan descent, about 10 miles north of Merida near the Gulf of Mexico. Like all traditional pueblos in the Yucatan, Cheblekal has a small central square and a little Catholic church, but not much else, except that it is the gateway to the ruins of Dzibilchaltún. Once a grand ceremonial and commercial center, Dzibilchaltún was occupied continuously for 3,000 years right up to the time of the Spanish invasion.
But, Cheblekal is not the only village whose people got sick. Chikungunya and Dengue are epidemic around Merida, the capital of the Yucatan. Peak infection rates were in September 2015, when patients overwhelmed private clinics and hospital emergency rooms. But Cheblekal got hit hardest.
The same genus of mosquitos (Aedes) that transmits Dengue, Yellow Fever, and Zika viruses carries Chikungunya. Symptoms of Chikungunya, Dengue, and Zika overlap, making diagnosis difficult. Reliable lab tests are hard to come by in the Yucatan.
Zika is the latest of very scary viruses. Something is happening that we’ve never seen before. What’s going on?
Climate warming and environmental disruption provide perfect conditions for mosquitoes to breed and spread disease. Most cases are among Latin America’s poor who live in crowded conditions, without window screens or mosquito netting, like those in Cheblekal. They have little awareness of public health measures like preventing standing water in old tires, pots, and plastic containers.
When people got sick in Cheblekal, as in other parts of Merida, they went to the local clinic or hospital. However, they were disappointed because there is no treatment other than anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen, or paracetamol. So, the locals turned to a plant remedy that grew in their yard.
The Power Of Papaya Leaf
One of the features of Dengue and Chikungunya infection is a marked drop in platelets, a type of blood cell that helps manage blood clotting. When platelet levels plummet, spontaneous bleeding can occur, as happens with hemorrhagic Dengue.
Experienced Mexican doctors know that viruses carried by Aedes mosquitos cause the tell-tail symptoms of fever, severe joint pain, and rash. They also know that Chikungunya causes mainly fever and severe joint pain, but few have sore throats or a cough. Dengue fever has similar symptoms, and also lowers platelets. White blood cells can also decline in Dengue and Chikungunya, but more so in Dengue cases.
Zika has the same symptoms of fever, joint pain, and body rash, though milder than Dengue or Chikungunya. It doesn’t drop white cell or platelet counts. However, it attacks the nervous system and can cause birth defects in pregnant women or paralysis.
Since Aedes mosquitos carry all these viruses, co-infection with Zika and Dengue occurs. It is likely that Aedes harbor many other pathogens, though not all at the same time, making co-infections more frequent than previously thought.Papaya leaf has caught on as a treatment for Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika. It was first used in India as a natural spray to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Dengue and Yellow Fever viruses. According to one study, papaya leaf spray is toxic to the mosquito larvae but safe to use around people.
So, people started to take papaya leaf tea or juice, and it worked. Scientists started investigating and found that papaya leaf extract quickly increases platelet and white blood cell levels.
Various preparations are available in India and Indonesia including extracts of papaya leaf in capsules and tinctures. Other preparations use papaya leave juice. Here is one method you can try at home.
Fresh Papaya Leaf Recipe:
Select ten fresh papaya leaves.
Cut away and discard the long stem and central veins.
Chop the leaves into small pieces and place in a blender.
Blend with just enough water to make a liquid paste.
Strain the fluid and discard the pulp.
To treat symptoms of Dengue, Chikungunya, or Zika, take 2 tablespoons of papaya leaf juice every three hours for 2-3 days. If symptoms persist, continue for one week.
For those without their own papaya trees, a few US companies make papaya leaf tincture as well as powdered extracts in capsules and liquid form.
Since papaya preparations have not been scientifically tested, they may or may not work as the studies indicate for the commercially available preparations in Asia.
Papaya (Carica papaya) leaf is considered safe and non-toxic. Not only does the papaya tree produce edible fruit, but also enzymes from the fruit are commercially produced to support digestion. Other medical uses include the treatment of diabetes, high blood pressure, as an anti-parasitic, and to lower cholesterol.
Though I grow papayas in my garden in South Florida and travel regularly to Cuba, Mexico, and Peru where papaya trees are plentiful, I’ve yet to experiment with making papaya leaf preparations.
There are many papaya trees growing at the home of my friends where I stay in Merida, near Cheblekal. One evening, I sat in their patio and exposed by ankles. Aedes mosquitos come out at twilight and like to bit low. Soon, my lower legs were itching. Aedes bites don’t sting like their bigger relatives, but they really itch!
It takes about three days to get symptoms. So, I guess that was lucky. However, I really wanted to experiment with papaya leaves. I’ve had Dengue, which I wrote about in my book, Viral Immunity. I’ve treated patients with Chikungunya. But, I guess on this trip it was not my fate to get sick.
When I arrived at the Miami International Airport after my trip to Merida, I wasn’t surprised to see a poster at US Customs warning pregnant women about avoiding exposure to Zika virus.
Expect to see a lot more sickness from Aedes mosquitos in the years ahead, including in the United States. And, learn ways to treat Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika infections with natural medicines like papaya leaf preparations.