The Special Report24th June 2001
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By Andy Blamey
LONDON, (Reuters) - From vitamin C to echinacea, from garlic to chicken soup — the list of possible wonder cures for the common cold continues to expand, with zinc being promoted in some quarters as the latest magic bullet.
Despite the best efforts of the medical industry, common colds remain an unpleasant fact of life for most people — it has been estimated that adults suffer two to five colds a year, and infants and pre-school children have an average of four to eight.
"The common cold is really a gross over-reaction to a minor viral infection present in some of the cells primarily of the adenoid tissue," George Eby, president of Texas-based George Eby Research, told Reuters.
Adenoid tissue, located at the very back of the nose where it connects to the throat, is composed of lymphoid tissue whose primary purpose is to fight infection.
Eby, who is self-trained across a variety of biomedical fields, began researching into the treatment of colds with zinc lozenges in the early 1980s and now holds several U.S. patents for zinc-based cold remedies.
The symptoms of the common cold syndrome are caused by more than two hundred different viruses but rhinoviruses (nose viruses) account for around 30-40 percent of adult colds.
Rhinoviruses may be tiny — you could line up 50,000 end to end across one millimetre — but they are also prolific, replicating a hundredfold every two hours. Thus early action is crucial, said Eby.
"When you first feel that tickle in your throat — that's when zinc acetate lozenges can knock down a cold. If you get the right lozenge you can abort a cold within hours," Eby said.
Zinc has long been known as a crucial component in the human immune system, but the key to effective zinc-based cold treatments, Eby said, is the production of positively charged zinc ions.
According to research available on Eby's website, www.coldcure.com, these ions have an astringent drying action on all cell membranes — including mucus-secreting cells — and inhibit rhinovirus replication, among other effects.
"Some of the cells that line the nose, called mast cells, contain pure zinc ions, which are nature's way of terminating colds," Eby said, adding that effective zinc lozenges enhance the body's natural defences.
Zinc acetate and zinc gluconate-glycine are the only zinc compounds that release positive zinc ions, he added.
In the scientific community at large, however, the jury is still out regarding zinc's efficacy in fighting colds.
"At the moment it's still quite a controversial area — there are an equal number of clinical trials showing some benefit and no difference to a placebo," said Professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff School of Biosciences, University of Wales. "It's a grey area. It's becoming a little darker but it's still by no means black and white," Eccles told Reuters.
The self-limiting nature of the common cold, which will clear up of its own accord in most cases, means that consumers may simply assume that whichever product they opt for has had the desired effect, he said.
"We're all cured of common colds spontaneously in any case. When it comes to treating the common cold the people who supply remedies are in a win-win situation," Eccles said.
"With zinc we're probably looking at a mild reduction in symptoms or knocking a day off the duration of the cold, but it's marketing-driven rather than science-driven," he added.
Eby maintains that trials which have shown little or no benefit from zinc lozenges have been based on defective products. "I always thought that when someone comes up with a scientific or medical discovery, the first thing that happens when it's published is that people try to replicate it exactly," he said.
But that didn't happen in the case of zinc lozenges when Eby first made his research public back in the 1980s, he said.
"A lot of companies have led themselves and the world down false trails, and we've spent the last 15 or 20 years trying to recover from that."
By Deepak Tiwari, Kanhaiah Bhelari and Ajay UpretySagargram is one village off National Highway 59, where truck driver Narvel Singh, 32, never fails to break journey. Each time, for an erotic thrill. The village in Mandsaur district, Madhya Pradesh, is one of 11 dotting this part of the highway connecting Delhi and Mumbai, and inhabited by the Banchharas, a community which practises prostitution.
For truck drivers, the route is one of the "most enjoyable" with girls of all age groups available throughout at affordable prices. In fact, most of the dhabas are run by the brightly-clothed and lipsticked Banchhara women, who walk in groups of two and three along the highway, waving truck drivers to a halt.
Often, the women, instead of inviting customers to their deras or homes, take a lift from the truck drivers and 'entertain' them till they reach their destination where they might have more customers waiting.
Further north lies another favourite stop on a trucker's route. Basai, on the outskirts of Agra, Uttar Pradesh, is populated by the Beria tribe. It is said that actor Balraj Sahani once visited the village in his quest for a dancer who could perform faultless mujra, a dance form performed by those in the flesh trade. Such was Basai's notoriety, that "no one was ready to marry a girl from here," said Chandra Sen, a villager. Things quietened down considerably after a police post was set up here seven years ago. Many commercial sex workers and their agents either left in search of greener pastures, or changed careers. But it did not spell the end of the age-old trade in women, which continues, albeit hush-hush.
"There is no dearth of money in Basai," said Babu Lal, who was once a pimp, but now runs a dairy. "Even I used to earn Rs 400 to 500 a night, bringing customers here, while sex workers would charge between Rs 500 and 2,000 depending on demand."
The signs of wealth are not obvious, except maybe inside homes which might boast a refrigerator or TV set. Open drains and heaps of garbage typically characterise the landscape.
Although official figures are few, villages like Sagargram and Basai are believed to be a hotbed of sexually-transmitted disease (STD) and acquired immuno deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Banchhara women are split into two groups in a socially-sanctioned and rigorously-followed "division of labour". Those who can marry are known as the 'Bhattawadis', while those reserved for prostitution are called the 'Khelawadi'. The menfolk, deterred by costly bride prices-ranging between Rs 50,000 and 70,000-and the custom of dedicating the eldest girl child to prostitution, often choose to marry outside the community disregarding tradition.
With increasing awareness about AIDS and STD, the Banchharas have begun adopting precautions. "Our slogan is 'No condom, no sex'; 'no money no sex', " said Seema of Mudli village. Accordingly, condoms are stocked at dhabas and deras.
Their customers are cooperative. Said a driver, pointing towards a signboard cautioning AIDS: "We too have children and family and a few minutes of fun can destroy our lives." One of Seema's regular customers, Mange-ram, a truck driver from Delhi, claims that the penalty for not carrying condoms in the first-aid box, is a fine of Rs 1,000 levied by the regional transport officer or the police.
But none of the sex workers uses condoms. "Most of the customers insist on not using one, and we have to give in," said a sex worker. Another added: "We feel shy going to a medical shop to buy condoms."
Efforts by the government and NGOs have so far failed to root out prostitution in these highway villages. Sometime ago, when a Banchhara woman, Talabai, became sarpanch of Sagargram, the Mandsaur collector asked her to oppose prostitution among her people. She refused saying, "My women will die of hunger if they stop business."
And so the status quo prevails in ever so many villages like Sagargram, Beda and Basai. As Meera Rani of Beda put it, "There's no way out of this profession." And even if there is, few among them choose to swim against the tide. A majority are like Nitu, who admitted to having been quite strong-willed before being "forced to accept" her job profile. "But today," she said, "all I feel is weakness."
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