Dengue fever is a problem that just does not seem to want to go away in Malaysia where hundreds of cases are reported daily. And even worse, it seems to be escalating. As of 16 April 2015, the total case count of people suffering from dengue fever stands at 36,611; with Selangor state reporting the most cases at 21, 471.
In addition, the total number of dengue fever fatality this year is 113.
For comparison, this infographic shows the number of dengue cases and deaths in Malaysia from the year 2013 to October 2014:
While every year hundreds die from dengue in Malaysia alone, there's still no vaccine or medicine that can help prevent dengue. All you can do to protect yourself is to prevent mosquito bites.
But what if you could not prevent yourself from being bitten by a mosquito and fall sick? What then?
Can papaya leaf juice help you in recovering from dengue fever?
According to this article, dated 11 December 2014, on Channel NewsAsia, "Malaysians have taken to consuming all sorts of traditional remedies to help cure dengue fever. One such remedy involves the juice of papaya leaves. The article cites Vaidya C D Siby, Chief Ayurvedic Physician at the Ayur Centre, saying that "(the juice of papaya leaves) has an antiviral capacity to improve the metabolism and it improves the liver function and that's how the liver function improves. The metabolism improves so the platelet level improves, that's how it happens."
However, this article, dated 1 October 2014, on The Sun Daily, tells Malaysians to not get excited over papaya juice extract as a treatment for dengue. Citing renowned Australia scientist Scott O'Neill, the article says that "until there is some clinical data or scientific research to check on the efficacy of papaya leaf extract to treat dengue, it will only be considered as hearsay."
O'Neill told The Sun Daily that regardless of the claim, it was still of utmost priority to have scientific evidence to back these claims.
"This is because there are many different remedies out there which people had said were able to treat different diseases but not every remedy is suitable or have high success rates in treating a disease. Hence, by having these scientific evidence it will then allow us to know to what extent the remedy works," he added.
He further pointed out that as far as he knows about papaya leaf extract, there has not been any major clinical studies conducted to determine its success rate in treating dengue. However, O'Neill does not reject the point that papaya leaf extract might actually be able to treat dengue but he urged everyone to be cautious.
According to a private medical practitioner, Dr. Hu Chang Hock, you should be careful when resorting to alternative treatment for dengue such as taking papaya leaf juice. The private practitioner said not enough studies had been done to prove its effectiveness.
Dr. Hu, who has a Master's Degree in Infectious Disease and Tropical Medicine, said: "Don't depend on inconclusive results. Papaya leaves contain alkaloids, which is known to be toxic and they include a compound known to have direct effect on our hearts."
"People feeling unwell should seek medical attention immediately. Get proper medical advice including getting blood tests done and consuming enough fluids. This is because leakage of plasma can result in a drop in blood pressure and shock, if untreated," he advised when asked to comment on claims that certain people were seeking alternative treatment for the disease.
Another doctor, Dr. Nupur Krishnan, a clinical nutritionist from Kemps Corner, an upmarket neighbourhood in South Mumbai, India, said that people should take such claims (that the juice of papaya leaves can immediately boost platelet count in the body and is a miracle cure for dengue fever) with a pinch of salt.
In this article, dated 27 October 2012, the Indian doctor said that even if papaya leaves have nutrients capable of increasing platelet count, the human body might not be capable of absorbing such nutrients. "People often think that eating leafy vegetables such as spinach and fenugreek will increase haemoglobin levels in blood. But certain acids present in such foods prevents the body from absorbing them."
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the extract of raw papaya leaf helps to boost platelets, also known as thrombocytes, and relieves symptoms. A number of recent studies, too, have shown the effect of papaya leaf juice in curing the dengue fever.
A 2009 study, done on mice in Malaysia, reported significant improvement in thrombocyte count in the group which received papaya leaf formulations compared to the control group.
A 2012 study, done on five dengue patients by Indian Institute of Forest Management, found interesting observations. Among the five patients, papaya leaf juice was found to be effective in curing dengue. The platelet count increased in all five patients within 24 hours of drinking the papaya leaf juice. All of them reported significant improvement in health.
A 2013 study, done on 288 dengue fever and dengue haemorrhagic fever patients in Malaysia, found that Carica papaya leaf extract can assist in increasing platelets in patients with dengue fever. The study was led by Dr. Soobitha Subenthran and team from the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur.
According to this article, dated 17 August 2014, Prof. Dr. Saringat Haji Baie from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang also strongly supported IMR’s findings. "It is not merely a traditional belief, but a proven cure as I have tried it on my own son when he fell victim to dengue recently. Many people are taking it and although not scientifically proven, it works," said the professor.
So what's the deal?
Should you be drinking papaya leaf juice as a dengue patient?
It's a grey area!
Several small scientific studies have been carried out in dengue-endemic countries like Malaysia and India, looking into the efficacy of this herbal remedy.
While the results cannot be said to be definitive, due to their small study size, they are certainly promising.
The video below shows how to prepare papaya leaf juice: