For New Yorkers who depend on alternative medicine rather than professional care, the wait for health care reform has been desperate and dangerous.
“It is worrying because often they rely on this as their sole source of treatment, and obviously a lot of herbal treatments are not well researched,” said Theo Oshiro, director of health advocacy at immigrant rights group Make the Road New York.
Alternative healing practices are common in immigrant communities, where there are higher rates of uninsured and where culture barriers create distrust of U.S. doctors. In Gotham, one in five Asian-Americans lack adequate health coverage and a quarter of Latinos have no insurance at all.
As a result, some look to folk healers who they can trust and afford. Hispanic immigrants often visit curanderos, or folk healers, Oshiro said.
Alternative treatments — loosely defined to include yoga, acupuncture and herbal teas — for the most part are harmless, experts said. In some rare cases, however, natural cures, which aren’t regulated by the FDA, can be fatal. In the past decade, dozens in the U.S. have become ill or been killed by greta, azarcon and other lead-heavy powders used in Mexican folk remedies.
Just last month, the city health department issued a warning against calabash chalk, a potentially poisonous morning sickness remedy common in West African communities.
The health care debate has dragged on for more than a year, and a House vote expected Sunday could decide the fate of President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
To one Vietnamese immigrant, passage could mean doctor’s appointments rather than the traditional lemongrass steam remedy he uses to fight the flu. “It works for now,” said Dui Dinh Ngo, 50, no relation to the reporter. But what would the uninsured Flushing resident do in an emergency? “I can’t worry about that,” he said.
Many in the city’s Asian communities integrate folk healers and licensed physicians, and can do so safely as long as all parties know what medications are being taken, said Teresa Lin, of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.
Disclosure and trust between doctors and immigrants are as key in meeting the city’s health care needs as affordability, Lin said. “There are people who are afraid to go to the doctor or who will just take over-the-counter medication and hope it goes away,” she said.