I love living on these islands in the Pacific, I truly do. I love that we have great beaches (love, even, that I can mention “beaches” in its plural form, and that reaching them does not necessarily involve a plane ride). I love that the two seasons–wet and dry–don’t require drastic wardrobe rotations. I love the cheerful tropical spirit of my people.
But there are two sides to every coin, and on the flip side of everything I love about my country is this: come rainy season, you can be sure the news will carry accounts of dengue fever cases, along with the usual precautionary measures and better-safe-than-sorry procedures to follow if you want to reduce your risk of being counted among the unfortunate bodies who happen to get bitten by the bug (specifically, a huge pest of a mosquito, known to insect-lovers as Aedes Aegypti – though I would think it would’ve been more accurate to have named them Hades Aegypti. ).
When my eldest son, now 19, was about 6 years old, he contracted dengue, which required about a week’s worth of hospitalization and hourly pricks for blood tests. A couple of weeks ago, my hubby got it too.
What Is It, Really?
In case you’re one of the lucky non-tropical dwellers for whom “dengue” is a word that needs some googling (learn more about it HERE and HERE), it’s a mosquito-borne viral disease that’s characterized by sudden high fever (that often goes up and down), severe headaches, exhaustion, and pain behind the eyes, muscles and joints. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a cough and sore throat, a bum stomach, a lack of appetite, and that tell-tale rash (petechiae) that looks like little red flat dots. Sometimes it’s not. See, there are 4 different strains of dengue, and some of them could be quickly fatal and some might not be as serious… but all cases of dengue cause stress and fear because you won’t really know what strain you have until you go through the worst of it.
Three things are most annoying about dengue fever:
One – its symptoms mimic the flu, a cold, a regular stomach bug.
My husband thought he simply had a bad case of the flu till (and this is where I thank my guardian angel for nudging me) on the 3rd day of fever and looking at his weakening state, I suggested that he have a complete blood count (CBC) test. The drop in platelets (that component of the blood that’s responsible for its natural clotting ability) is one of the more certain indications that one has dengue – and on that day, the hubby’s platelet count was 174 (below 250 which was the normal count for his size and age). Eight hours later, in the evening, another CBC was done in the ER of the hospital; his platelet count was down to 134, and he went straight from the ER to his hospital room.
Two – Medicine has advanced now so that you can actually take a dengue test (which requires extracting more blood from you), which can determine whether you’re positive or negative for dengue fever.
That should be good, right? Weeell, here’s the thing: the dengue test is much like a pregnancy test: a positive result means you definitely have dengue fever, but a negative result could very well be a false negative (which roughly translates to: you can’t really breathe too easily because you just *might* have dengue; let’s test again after a day or two). The hubby tested negative when they administered the first test at the ER, but after a week in the hospital the doctor’s diagnosis was positive for dengue.
And three – The thing about dengue fever is there is no medically-sanctioned cure (because it’s viral, there are no antibiotics that can cure it).
So the best you can do is to keep hydrated (first thing the hospital did was to stick an IV into the hubby’s arm), to relieve the symptoms (paracetamol for fever control and hold off on the aspirin as it can contribute to faster hemorrhaging), and to monitor the platelets so that in case it drops way below 100, you can start collecting friends who would be willing to donate platelets in case transfusion is called for. (Yep, they did stick blood-collection needles into the hubby’s battle-weary arm multiple times).
Uh, Didn’t You Say “Cure”?
BUT the title of this blogpost is “That” Dengue Fever Cure, so if there’s no formal medically-sanctioned cure, what in heaven’s name could I be writing about?
Enter the tawa tawa plant (scientific name: Euphorbia Hirta – kinda sounds like Hakuna Matata :P), which is sometimes called gatas gatas in the Visayan areas of my country. Said to be so common around the Philippines, it can be found on rural roadsides and in grassy areas. Loads of friends of mine who either had dengue fever encounters themselves, or close family members with closer calls, had in the past given me first-hand accounts of how effective tawa tawa is as a “cure.” One of the major TV networks even did both a written feature and a live-news feature on it:
So naturally by the 3rd day of the hubby’s hospital confinement and a continually dropping platelet count, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to try out the local herbal remedy recommended by all people from all walks of life this side of the continent. Problem was, I had no previous association with the tawa tawa plant. I had no idea what it looked like. The only information I had stored in my memory was (1) it’s really effective in battling dengue fever and (2) it’s really easy to find, and you’d have the best luck going to Manila Seedling Bank.
The Elusive Search for The Cure
So I googled the map for Manila Seedling Bank and had my driver bring us there. I remember being told that tawa tawa is so widespread (and “wild-spread”) that you didn’t even have to buy it; you could simply ask any gardener at Manila Seedling Bank for a clump of the weeds. I told this to my driver, and as we drove into the compound, he asked the first man he saw (an old man on a bike), “Boss, sa’n makakabili dito ng tawa tawa?” (Where can we buy tawa tawa?) Tsk tsk, lesson number 1: when you say “buy” instead of “get” – now that can put funny ideas in other people’s minds.
The man on the bike said, “Tawa tawa? Naku, walang ganun dito! Sa bundok mo lang yan makikita.” (Tawa tawa? You won’t find any of that here! You’ll only find it growing on the mountain sides). Uh, did I mention I happen to be in a city where the nearest mountainside would be at least an hour and a half away? Sigh. I told my driver to thank the man and drive on, knowing that the blasted plant had to be available in some garden there as my friends had informed me long ago.
Suddenly Mr. Man-on-the-bike came cycling up to the driver’s window and motioned for him to roll down the window. Then with a crooked smile, he offered, “Kailangan niyo ba ng tawa tawa? Kunan ko kayo, sandali lang… magkano…?” (Do you really need tawa tawa? I can get some for you, if you want, real quick… for a fee…). And here’s where I have to confess that I had to stifle the urge to stick my head out the window and inquire of him, “Bakit po, nasa kabilang kanto po ba ang bundok?” (Oh, and is the nearest mountainside just around the corner?). Instead, we said no, thank you, and drove on. I told my driver to park and check the other gardens in the compound and ask for, not offer to buy, the weeds.
After a bit, my driver came back holding a clump of weeds with a triumphant smile on his face… and off we went, back home, where I could begin figuring out how to turn those weeds into the curative juice that everyone was raving about.
Back at home base, it took a while for my driver to park the car and bring the weeds up. Just as I was wondering if he had taken the initiative to turn them into tea himself, he came up and said…
“It seems we were given the wrong plant.”
“This is not tawa tawa,” he said, holding up our bounty from Manila Seedling Bank. “This,” he proudly declared, holding up a tiny measly one-inch stem with 3 leaves on it, “is the real tawa tawa.”
Say that again? Oh holy wow. 🙄
Lesson No.2 – Do not go on a search-for-tawa-tawa adventure without first knowing what the blasted plant looks like.
To make a long story short (as short as the distance between the parked car and our back door), my driver happened to bump into curious neighbors’ drivers, one of whom promptly informed him that the bunch of weeds would do nothing for dengue since they were not tawa tawa weeds. Aaaand (this is where divine intervention steps in) that same driver just happened to have a child who was suffering from dengue and therefore he had a sample of the actual weed needed. Fifty bucks (a little gift of gratitude) later, my driver had even more than a handful of the requisite (correct) weeds and the added information that they actually grew in the gardens of the community we live in. (Nice. Now that’s a literal case of looking over someone else’s fence when you had what you needed right in your own garden).
The only hurdle left: how to actually turn these leaves into tawa tawa tea?
Oh Google, thou art my best friend.
I was thrilled, delighted, and grateful to find numerous step-by-step instructions (here, here, and here), all of which definitely gave me confidence to embark on this potion-making adventure, but I was a bit sad that none of them were pictorial in nature. Forgive me for being a bit dense when it comes to concocting herbal remedies, but I believe I would be excused, being a newbie at brewing medicinal teas from leaves and all that. Wistful and wishful, I imagined how lovely it would have been to have photos accompanying the instructions, just so I could really determine if I was on the right track in this culinary adventure or not. (Or maybe it’s the perennial teacher in me that believes in the power of audio-visual aids to accomplish much deeper learning compared to a straight-out lecture).
All of which really meant that I was a hop, skip and a jump away from concluding that if there isn’t a step-by-step pictorial instruction guide on how to prepare this herbal remedy, then why not create one to help all those who might appreciate not just words but the photos to go with it as well?
And So Here We Are
The instructions, ladies and gentlemen, for how to prepare tawa tawa tea. Words courtesy of compiled references from multiple google searches, photos courtesy of me. For you and whoever else might have use for the knowledge. 🙂
1. Take 5 to 6 whole tawa tawa plants (Since I didn’t know what a “whole plant” looked like, I assumed a clump of the weed = 1 whole plant).
2. Wash thoroughly. (You really want to do this, since the weeds grow by the roadside and pulling them out means you take along with it all that glorious soil).
Tip: The organic vegetable wash liquid from Rustan’s does a great job of making sure that your weeds are really clean. 🙂
3. Cut off the roots. (Yeah, you won’t be needing those).
4. Put the leaves in a boiling pot and add water. (The instructions I found on the web said “Fill a boiling pot with water.” How big would that boiling pot be? About how much water would that be? Am I being too OC about this? 😆 Uh, in case you are wondering the same thing, just do it by feel. If the leaves are sufficiently submerged in water, I’d say you’re on the right track).
5. Boil the tawa tawa on low fire. (Several of the web resources I found instructed “Boil for 1 minute on low fire” or “Boil for 1 minute in a slow, rolling boil.” Huh. In my case, 1 minute did not even get the water to boiling point, and the water certainly wasn’t rolling. So I’d say boil the stuff till you have a slow, rolling boil… whether that takes 1 minute or 5.)
Tip: You’ll know you’ve boiled sufficiently when the water changes color.
6. Let the concoction cool.
7. Throw the leaves and stalks away (yeah, they’re kinda like single-use coupons 😉 ). Pour the tea / juice / colored liquid into a pretty container (presentation always counts! 🙂 ).
8. Et voila! You’ve done it!
Then you let the patient drink the brew in a glass instead of water for an entire day (To me, that would mean a minimum of 4 or 5 glasses of the tea a day, even if one should drink 8-10 glasses of water. I wouldn’t subject anyone to strictly drinking this solely instead of water, but that’s just me).
I tasted it before giving it to the hubs, of course: empathy required it. The hubby hated the taste and said it tasted like Nawasa juice (a joke for bad-tasting water), but I thought it simply tasted like… well, earthy, bad tea. 😆
Epilogue: A day after subjecting the hubs to what he called the Triple T (Tawa Tawa Torture), he was released from the hospital. His platelet count hadn’t gone up to normal levels yet, but they were above levels of concern, and the doctors gave him clearance to complete his recuperation at home.
The hubby thinks that the sickness had simply run its course. Me, I prefer to think that all the prayers of friends and family, hospital care, and the tawa tawa tea – in that order, mind – helped him on the road to recovery. 🙂
So for whatever it’s worth, I hope these pictorial instructions may help anyone in need now or in the future (though I hope even more that no one will ever have need for it, i.e., that everyone will be dengue-risk-free).
PS. Additional research has yielded that dengue fever occurs in other places around the world: “Dengue is prevalent throughout the tropics and subtropics. Outbreaks have occurred recently in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba, and in Paraguay in South America, and Costa Rica in Central America.”