The Papaya Tree (Carica papaya), originally from South America now grows throughout the tropical regions of the world. While everyone is familiar with the Papaya fruit few realize that the leaves of the Papaya Tree are important medicinally and the subject of enormous scientific interest in recent years.
Papaya leaves contain powerful phytochemicals with antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, liver protective and blood sugar lowering properties. New research is also confirming its use as a natural treatment in treating mosquito borne illnesses, particularly dengue and malaria and may show promise in zika infection as well.
The dengue virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is the same mosquito that also transmits chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika infection. Dengue is widespread throughout the tropics especially in the rainy seasons and urban areas with stagnant water. Severe dengue was first recognized in the 1950s during dengue epidemics in Southeast Asia and has since spread throughout the world. Here in Malaysia the incidence of Dengue fever and related deaths has steadily increased over the last 5 years making it a national health crisis.
Dengue fever causes symptoms such as sudden onset of fever, headache and severe back pain which is why it is also known as “break-bone fever.” Dengue fever in particular has no current medical treatment other than bed rest and monitoring to check whether the white blood cell and platelet count drop too low (leukopenia and thrombocytopenia) to where there’s a risk of developing the life threatening dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome (DSS).
Because of this effective natural remedies are being sought that may be safely taken immediately upon detection of dengue infection to increase the platelet count and prevent the complication of thrombocytopenia. Papaya leaf has been used traditionally for dengue fevers in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan for many years and it is one of the most commonly sought after natural remedies. Despite its popularity and claims by thousands as to its benefits the traditional use of Papaya leaf juice and tea in dengue fever has been viewed with great skepticism due to the claim that there is no scientific evidence to support its use. Thus it has been very common for doctors to prohibit patients from taking Papaya leaf (indeed many countries severely limit or forbid doctors from recommending any natural remedies to patients) even though they have no other therapy, pharmaceutical or otherwise to offer other than bed rest, symptomatic care and careful monitoring.
Clinical and laboratory research on Papaya leaf
That Papaya leaf does indeed provide a safe, inexpensive and beneficial treatment in dengue has been confirmed in all animal and human clinical studies performed to date. These studies (see links to research papers below) show that Papaya leaf brings about a definite increase in platelet count when taken orally at clinically effective dosages and that these dosages are within the dosages recommended in traditional medicine. Importantly, it was found to increase the platelet levels as early as 24 hours with a significant increase in the total white blood cell and neutrophil counts as well. While the research is still ongoing to determine the exact mechanism and active components responsible for the beneficial effects, from the perspective of herbal medicine it can be said that the herb contains multiple compounds that act synergistically with both direct antiviral properties as well as by supporting the bodies own innate immunity to destroy the virus and to handle the symptoms. The part of the Papaya leaf used was the whole crude powder, juice or extract and no specific isolation of any its compounds was performed. While drug companies are looking for a patentable and profitable synthetic drug for the treatment of dengue it is very likely that in the case of Papaya leaf the whole herb will prove to be superior to the action of any of its individual components.
Dr Sanath Hettige (MBBS,MD,DFM,FCGP) is a medical practitioner researching Papaya leaf for the treatment of dengue. His clinical trials on over 500 patients using Papaya leaf are as follows:
“This research has shown many beneficial effects, including reduction in the duration of fever, duration of illness, hospital stay, most importantly fluid leak and the conversion of Dengue fever to Dengue haemorrhagic fever, rapid elevation of white blood cells and platelet counts. This treatment can be initiated at primary care level after confirming the diagnosis with NS1 antigen from the first day of fever. Based on my clinical experience and clinical research, I recommend that papaya leave extract to be given from the first day of Dengue fever concurrently with the usual dengue management. This will reduce morbidity and mortality.”
In conclusion, there is no longer any lack of evidence for the use of Papaya leaf in dengue treatment and in some Asian tropical countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka it is becoming an accepted supportive therapy even by allopathic medical doctors. In the event that you suspect that yourself or a loved one may have dengue then it’s essential to have an accurate diagnosis and NS1 Antigen Test performed by a qualified medical doctor (only costs between RM30 to RM40 in Malaysia) and that if dengue infection is confirmed then the patient should be carefully monitored. It is recommended that Papaya Leaf fresh juice of dry herb decoction be given at as early a stage as possible. All studies have shown a high degree of safety for Papaya leaf and indeed it is used as a vegetable leaf in many tropical countries. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Papaya leaf along with the unripe Papaya fruit are used as a common “ulam” or salad vegetables even though they have a bitter taste. The only dangers of using Papaya leaf for dengue is when over zealous people avoid seeking professional medical diagnosis and “go it alone” without the essential monitoring of symptoms in the event that the dengue infection progresses to the very serious dengue hemorrhagic fever. The same treatment protocols and need for accurate diagnosis apply in the case of the newly emerging Zika Virus spread by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito. More research is required to determine the therapeutic success of natural remedies like Papaya leaf in Zika virus and researchers in Malaysia are conducting ongoing studies to this effect. As with most herbs, Papaya leaf is not recommended during pregnancy.