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Folk Medicine

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Bordering the Future

A mother from Carrizo Springs brought her son to the local hospital emergency room. The three-year-old child had been alternately lethargic and hyperactive, and his stomach was upset. Tests performed by the emergency room physician showed blood lead levels more than seven times the expected level.

When the Texas Department of Health questioned family members during a home visit intended to identify ways the boy was exposed to lead, the boy's grandmother produced a powdered folk medicine called greta, which she gave to the child for his empacho, which loosely describes a broad range of symptoms from colic and upset stomach to hyperactivity. Laboratory analysis found the medicine contained 80 percent lead oxide, a highly soluble form of lead. The child received therapy to lower the lead levels, and the grandmother, upon learning the dangers of greta, promised not to use the remedy again.1

Health care providers practicing on the border must be knowledgeable and respectful of cultural differences affecting treatment. Patients may use herbal remedies from curanderos, or folk healers, along with physician-prescribed medicines, or they may use herbal remedies before seeking modern medical care. Providers must have an understanding of folk remedies to avoid unwanted drug interactions, to gain the patient's trust, and to recognize harmful folk remedies.

Herbal treatments are available through curanderos, flea markets, or at hierbarías, either packaged or in bulk. Though the herbs usually have no significant medical effects, curanderos make claims that such remedies can cure ulcers, cancer, hepatitis, asthma, kidney disease, hypertension, and diabetes. One of the most popular is uña de gato, a mixture of various herbs and powdered cat claw. It is used to treat a broad range of ailments including tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. Herbs such as mint are used to treat gastrointestinal disorders such as indigestion, ulcers, and colon cancer.

Physicians in the Border region are not likely to tell patients to give up folk remedies. Instead, sensitivity to, and knowledge about, curanderos and their practices can hasten a correct diagnosis and a patient's speedy return to health, avoiding unnecessary delays, health risks, and even the possibility of a patient not getting appropriate treatment in time.


1 Interview with Kasslane Curfman, director, Office of Border Health-Uvalde, Texas Department of Health, Uvalde, Texas, April 22, 1998.

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