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Dangerous and meticulous work copying Sigiriya frescoes in Bell era (1896)

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(Excerpted from Sigiriya Paintings by Raja de Silva, retired Commissioner of Archaeology)

RE-DISCOVERY AND DOCUMENTATION (Early Visits)

The village of Sigiriya is mentioned in the 16th century book of Sinhala verse titled Mandarampura-puvata. From then on, the site seems to have disappeared from the public record until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Major Forbes of the 78th Highlanders and two companions rode from Polonnaruva through Minneriya and Peikkulam in search of Sigiriya, and reached the site early in the morning of a day in April 1831 (Forbes 1841).

They returned to the site two years later and Forbes explored further the cavernous walled gallery on the western side of the great rock, which led towards the summit. Forbes was surprised to observe a durable plaster on the brickwork of the wall, while above the gallery, especially in places protected from the elements, the plaster was seen to be painted over in bright colours. However, he was disappointed and puzzled in not recognizing any representations of the lion, which, according to local lore, gave the name of Sigiri, i.e., Sinhagiri to the rock.

The lion that eluded Forbes was tracked down by the next visitor, who remained anonymous in recording his impressions in 1851 under the title “From the notebook of a traveller” in a magazine known as Young Ceylon. This early visitor described the gallery as a long cavernous fissure, the outer edges of which were deeply grooved and a brick wall raised there, nearly to the roof. The inner surface of the “cave” was described as “covered with a coating of white and polished chunam gleaming as if it were a month old”.

Some of the plaster from the ceiling and the rock side of the gallery had fallen off, but it was noted by the visitor that “there was a profusion of paintings, chiefly of lions, which is said to have given the name of Singaghery, Sihagiri or Seegiry to the ancient site”. No other visitor had reported on these lions.

Twenty four years later, Sigiriya and the paintings were brought to public notice by TW Rhys Davids (1875), formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service, in a lecture given before the Royal Asiatic Society, London. Rhys Davids described his observation, through a telescope, of the “hollow” halfway up the western side of the rock, with its surface covered with a fine hard “chunam” plaster on which were painted figures. He mentioned that the northern (i.e., further) area of the gallery was covered with ornamental paintings (again, to be lost not long after) and thought that a large number of these may have been erased with the passage of time. By the close of the century, when the Archaeological Survey Department (ASD) commenced work at Sigiriya, these paintings had all disappeared.

TH Blakesley (1976) Public Works Department, viewed the paintings from afar in 1875, and reported for the first time on their subject, which he recognized to be female figures “repeated again and again”, showing only the upper parts of their bodies, and richly ornamented with jewellery. The figures (he said) had a Mongolian cast of features. Blakesley also examined the plaster layer adhering to the accessible parts of the main rock, and remarked on the existence of paddy husks in the ground.

Reports of the existence of paintings at Sigiriya had attracted the attention of connoisseurs of art in Sri Lanka and in England, and Sir William Gregory, the former Governor, requested Alick Murray (1891), Provincial Engineer, to attempt to reach the paintings and make reproductions of them. This proposal was sanctioned by Sir Arthur Gordon, the Governor, who gave every encouragement to the project. Murray went to Sigiriya, fired with enthusiasm for this pioneering venture, but was disappointed to discover that the local villagers would have no part of his plans for disturbing the rock chamber which, they imagined, was inhabited by demons. The populace, however, was, persuaded to clear the jungle at the base of the rock in the required direction, while Murray awaited the arrival of Tamil labourers who were urgently requested from South India.

The Tamil stone-cutters (who had no fear of Sinhala demons) bored holes in the rock face, one above the other, into which were fixed with cement, iron jumpers. As they went higher up the rock towards the cavern containing the paintings, the man of the lightest weight had to be selected to bore the holes. After a while, even this labourer found it difficult to ascend higher. He supplicated that if he were allowed three days of fasting and prayer, he might succeed in finishing the task. Murray answered his prayer in the affirmative, thinking that it might lighten the man’s weight and thereby help him to reach the pocket containing the paintings. Once this goal was reached, it was found that the rock floor was at too steep an angle to permit one to stand or even sit on it. A strong trestle or framework of sticks was made and secured to iron stanchions let into the rock floor. A platform was made and placed on the framework to enable one to lie on his back and view the paintings.

On June 18, 1889, Murray made his historic climb into the fresco pocket, and he worked for a whole week lying on his back on makeshift scaffolding to make tracings of six paintings in coloured chalk on tissue paper. The work was done, climbing up and down each day, (as he said) “from sunrise to sunset”, the only inmates of the cavern being swallows who used to “peck at him resentfully”. When his work was reaching conclusion, a few of his friends including SM Burrows, Government Agent, Matale, hazarded the climb to the pocket to visit him, and it was suggested that a memento be left behind. A bottle was obtained and in it were deposited a newspaper of the day, a few coins, and a list of names of friends who had visited him at work. Murray’s party was astonished when a Buddhist monk and a Saivite priest sought permission to enter the chamber, and they were accommodated by Murray. They prayed for the preservation of the bottle, thereby adding solemnity to the occasion of its sealing into the floor with cement – a ceremony that was accompanied by Murray and Burrows singing “God Save the Queen”.

An unfortunate result of Murray’s excellent efforts at tracing the paintings under the windiest of conditions was that, on detaching the tracing papers that had been pasted with gum on the periphery of each figure, an egg-shell thin layer of painted plaster (i.e., the intonaco) also came away revealing a white framework of the layer of ground underneath. Another deplorable result was that a few Tamil labourers had scribbled their names on the painted plaster. The copies made by Murray were stated by Bell to have been exhibited above the staircase of the Colombo Museum.

Murray described the paintings as having been done on the roof and upper sections of the sides of the chamber; that they represent 15 female figures in all, but no doubt many more had existed originally, as traces of them were to be seen. The freshness of the colours (he observed) was wonderful, curiously, green predominating. Each figure was stated to have been life-size and many were naked to the waist, the rest of the form being hidden by representations of clouds. They were arranged either singly or in sets of two, each couple representing (he said) a mistress and a maid.

 

Access to Fresco Pockets

In 1896, Bell made regular access to the fresco pockets possible by the construction of a vertical ladder of jungle timber from the gallery to the cemented floor that was spread on the sloping -round of the rock cavern 40′ above. The shorter and narrower pocket A was made accessible from pocket B by a floor of iron planks set on iron rods as supports let into the surface of the rock horizontally and grouted in.

The early timber ladder was replaced by an iron wire vertical ladder with safety measures of hoops of cane and wire netting around it in 1896. A spiral staircase of iron steps was constructed in 1938. Another similar staircase was recently constructed by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) cheek-by-jowl with the earlier construction, and is used as the method of access to the fresco pocket at a point to the south of the original doorway. Visitors now use the old stairway as the exit from the pocket.

Eighty five years ago entry to the fresco pockets was restricted to those who had obtained permits from the Archaeological Commissioner. (AC).

The public has the opportunity of taking their cameras into the fresco pockets, on permits issued by the ASD, and photographing the paintings. No persons are allowed to have their photographs taken in front of the paintings, and at least two guards are stationed inside the fresco pockets as a security measure. No electronic or other flash-lights are permitted in photographing the paintings.

 

Documentation and Copying of the Paintings

Bell decided to photograph the pockets from a distance at the same elevation, and record the disposition of the paintings within. For this purpose a four inch hawser was let down from the summit to the ground with an iron block tied to the end. Through the block a two inch rope was passed and an improvised chair firmly tied to it, whereon the photographer took his seat. The hawser was then hauled up from the summit, 150 feet up until the chair was level with the pocket and 50 feet clear of the cliff, but due to the force of the wind that caused it to sway in the air, the photographs taken were not clear.

It took DAL Perera, Chief Draughtsman and Bell’s “Native Assistant”, a week to do an oil painting to scale, while perilously suspended in mid-air like the man on the flying trapeze. The painting was later photographed and lithographed to make a plate. From the top of the iron ladder the rock curved inwards for four feet or so to an upward rising floor of pocket B where it was not possible to safely stand or even sit on the smooth surface. As a safeguard at the head of the ladder and along the entire edge of both pockets B and A to the north of it and the ledge between them, iron standards three foot three inches in height, with a single top rail, were driven into the rock Bell stated: “Without such a handrail, a slip on the smooth inclined floor of the pocket would have meant instant death on the rocks fifty yards below.”

In the last week of March 1896, Perera made copies of six paintings in pocket B while being dangerously seated on the sloping floor. In the following year with additional safeguards and working platforms, Perera continued copying the remaining paintings in the two pockets. Bell reported that 13 of the paintings in pocket B could be easily reached from the floor, being painted on the rock wall and the lower part of the oblique roof of the cave, but they were not at one level. It was these paintings that Perera copied in 1896 and 1897 while being uncomfortably perched on the sloping floor of the fresco pocket, which had in 1897 been cemented towards the outer edge.

The painting at the extreme south, i.e., No. 14 and the fragments No. 15, 16, 17, were out of reach and well up on the roof of the pocket. To get at these paintings, it was necessary to construct a “cantilever” of jungle timber, firmly lashed to a stout iron cramp let into the rock floor. To the end of this projection was tied a rough “cage” of sticks, from which uncomfortable and perilous perch Perera made copies of the last and highest figures in pocket B.

It was even more difficult and dangerous to fix a hurdle platform outside the narrow and slippery ledge separating pocket B from pocket A and onwards to the end of this pocket. It took 10 days to construct this stick-shelf (massa). In addition to P iron bars supporting the woodwork, the whole braced strongly to thick iron cramped into the rock, the platform had to be further held up by a central hawser and side ropes, hauled taut round trees on the summit 300 feet up. When finished this improvised platform stood out 15 feet from the cliff.

It took Perera 19 weeks to complete copying the 22 paintings – 5 in pocket A and 17 in pocket B.

The constructional details and measurements given above are intended to serve several purposes: to enable the reader to appreciate the labour and expertise in 1896 exercised by the authorities in setting up the elaborate apparatus for Perera to copy and photograph the paintings – all for the love of preserving our ancient artwork; to appreciate the great care taken by Perera under perilous conditions to make such excellent copies of 22 paintings, now exhibited in the Colombo Museum, which Bell extolled in superlative terms:

“It is hardly going too far to assert that the copies represent the original frescoes as they may still be seen at Sigiriya, with a faithfulness almost perfect. Not a line, not a flaw or abrasion, not a shade of colour, but has been reproduced with the minutest accuracy”. (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Ceylon Branch (1897).

The details and measurements are also intended to impress upon readers the magnitude of the feats of our craftsman in ancient times, who constructed broad, long scaffoldings rising to a height of around 400 feet using jungle timber and creepers; and to marvel that the artists painted their subject so well, during a very long period upon multi-layered plaster on the wind-blown exposed rock.



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The ‘Cheena Abhagya’ on the rise

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There is a big China Hurry in the government that seems much higher than any hurry about controlling the Covid pandemic.

The debate of the Colombo Port City Commission was scheduled for May 5, without even receiving the Supreme Court decision on the many petitions filed before it. This is a complete and shameless shift from the very process of parliamentary debate, the stuff of democracy.

A debate in parliament is based on the material — the facts, plans, decisions, proposals etc – placed before the members. This government with its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has no interest in the democratic process. They decide on a date for a debate on what is the most important piece of legislation today, with the MPs not given even an hour to know and study the decision of the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, it is also a huge insult to the Supreme Court and the judicial process, too.

This decision and its refusal to agree to the Opposition calls for more days for this debate, showed how the government is ready, and determined, to use its two-thirds majority, post 20A, to have no respect for the democratic process.

Although this shameful move by the government failed, due to the Supreme Court decision not reaching the Speaker by that time, the mockery of democracy continues, with the next date for the debate on the Port City subject being fixed for May 18, again with no opportunity for all MPs to read and study the court decision/s on so many matters raised by the petitioners, some of whom were members of parliament too.

This is the China Hurry – Cheena Hadissiya – being displayed, just the initial moves to use the Sinopharm Covid Vaccine on the people of this country, while it has not been approved by the WHO and the responsible Health and Medical officials in this country.

This is the ‘Cheenabhagya’ doing much more than the Saubhagya Dekma of Gotabhaya Power. A rising ‘Abhagya’ or misery to the people.

This Cheenabhagya is certainly impacting others in the government, such as Minister Gamini Lokuge, who decided to arbitrarily lift the lockdown and travel restrictions in Piliyandala. There will be much more Cheena benefits and power in the coming weeks, as the country keeps reeling with the spread of the latest variant of Covid-19. 

The Cabinet move to import gyms to strengthen the muscles of the people is certainly a move to reduce the thinking power of the people. Muscle Power is the stuff of rulers who have no faith in the Brain Power of people, who would dare to question the decisions taken by rulers. The use of this Brain Power is the very substance of the Buddhist thinking that has been the core value of Sri Lanka through the centuries. This is the substance of the Buddha Dharmaya as against the Buddha-agama that has distorted Buddhist teachings. Are the plans to build a Sri Lankan temple, in the premises of the ancient and first Buddhist White Horse Temple in China, a show of the Cheena Dekma – or Chinese Vision – that holds sway among those attached to what will soon be the Cheena Rajavasala in Hambantota. Maybe, we will soon change the name of Hambantota to a Maha Cheenatota, and wipe off the arrival of Hamban people to this country.

Rishad Bathiuddin remains in the spotlight today. His moves with different governments, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Yahapalana have been the cause of much criticism and court orders such as replanting torn down jungles. He is now detained as a terror suspect, and the Cheena Balaya does not want him to attend parliament. Sarath Weerasekera, Minister of Public Security, does not want him in the House, as he will violate the legal process that holds him in custody, as he would most likely reveal the secrets of terrorism inquiries supposedly now underway, and may even help other un-arrested terror suspects to flee the country. This is against the official thinking of the Attorney General, who certainly knows more about law, than a retired armed services officer.

The innocence of an unconvicted person until conviction by a court, is part of our democratic and judicial processes. Weerasekera is wholly pleased to have within the government ranks, in parliament, a person convicted by the courts for the crime of murder in the Ratnapura district, Premalal Jayasekera. Is this power prospect for future murderers, convicted by a court of law? This Cheena Havula also had in its ranks Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan – Pillayan, while he was held in custody for the murder of a former MP in a Batticaloa church, many years ago. Well, well – he has since been acquitted and released by the Batticaloa High Court

It is not our delight that Rishard Bathiuddin is the focus of a call for democracy within parliament. We are aware of how his party, and the Muslim Congress too, gave support to pass the 20A, and its huge blow to democracy. But the rights of a citizen and an elected MP, have to be protected, whatever the politics and the other stuff of a person may be. To give him the right to attend and speak in parliament is a core value of the democratic process. This cannot be torn away under the Cheena thinking, which is fast taking us to the manipulations of the Chinese Communist Party, in its governance of China.

We are in the throes of a pandemic that is certainly sweeping the country. The need is to guide and handle the fight against it, and save the people of the horror we see just across the Palk Strait. Narendra Modi, who was honoured by his BJP for the so-called success in defeating Covid-19, is now facing humiliating defeats, electorally, socially and globally too. Our fight against this pandemic must be through the values of the democratic process. The values we have seen till 1977, after independence, which have been distorted and destroyed by JRJ and down to the Cheenabhagya of Gotabhaya.

The fight against Covid-19 must be a fight to restore Democracy too, in every form of the people’s rights and freedoms.

Let’s move to Janatha Bhagya, away from the rising Cheena Abhagya of today!

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From Cylinder to Liquid Oxygen Plant

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Story of Oxygen supply at National Hospital –

The National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) is the largest and best equipped Teaching Hospital in the country with a bed strength of nearly 4,000. It has 26 operating theatres, 28 Intensive Care Units (ICU) and several institutes including one for Cardiology housed in a large number of buildings. It is located on a 32-acre land standing in the middle of Colombo.

NHSL is circled by a ring of busy public roads while some roads are running through the premises. Hospital premises and surrounding roads are always filled with hurriedly pacing medical staff, siren blaring ambulances, patient-carrying trolleys, distressed relatives and tired visitors. One would not miss the sight of a cylinders loaded truck crawling across in this melee and wonder why the truck. They ensure continuous and uninterrupted supply of most essential medical oxygen for the patients treated in ICUs and those undergoing surgery in operating theatres.

A few years ago, a visitor would not have missed the outside walls of these operating theatres and ICUs each of which decorated with 6-7 hanging jumbo oxygen cylinders. When I made the morning strolls down the hospital corridors my eyes always caught the sight of these cylinders. Oxygen is taken through a copper tubing system fixed to these cylinders to the respective destinations. i.e. Oxygen outlet in the bedside of patients treated in ICUs and in operating theatres. Hospital had a sufficient number of cylinders filled with oxygen. Employees efficiently replaced empty cylinders with new ones.

Every day employees collected empty cylinders, loaded them on a truck and transported to the Oxygen Company in Mattakkuliya for refilling. On certain days when the oxygen consumption was high, this operation has to be doubled. Hospital had its own truck and a group of specially trained skilled employees assigned for the task. Loading and unloading of these jumbo cylinders was a specialised job.

I noticed this operation during my afternoon inspection tour. In fact, the noise made in loading unloading as well as dismounting and mounting cylinders on the walls and the sight itself, to say the least, was a nuisance. Once the truck returned, the refilled cylinders were immediately distributed among the theatres and ICUs. Needless to say this was a hectic task considering the large number, and the spread of theatres and ICUs in the hospital.

There were tensed situations when the truck did not return on time due to a break down, a traffic congestion or an accident on the way. Thought of the delay of the truck with refilled oxygen cylinders gave me many sleepless nights. I was waiting to welcome the irritating noise made when cylinders fell on one another during unloading. While others were cursing, I got a sense of relief as it was an indication that the oxygen truck has arrived. My official residence was in very close proximity to the Merchants Ward where many cylinders were unloaded. No sooner had I heard the clattering sound than I ran to the window to witness the unloading.

As the Director of the country’s largest hospital, I was responsible for the overall smooth functioning of the hospital itself and that of men, material and machinery. And among all, ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted supply of oxygen for patients who were critically ill and those undergoing surgery was foremost.

Majority staff including doctors and nurses did not know the complexity behind the smooth flow of oxygen through the outlet whenever they open the valve to administer oxygen to a patient. Only a handful of people knew the complexity of the ‘oxygen supply operation’ in the hospital. It was a nightmare for me personally and all my predecessors.

While worrying over this cumbersome complex manual operation, I was wondering how fitting this type of oxygen supply for a Teaching Hospital of the magnitude of the National Hospital. My mind was busy in exploring and weighing alternatives.

While listening to the clattering of cylinders and watching the swift movements of workers’ hands in the unloading operation in the middle of the night, with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, a thought struck my mind. I heard my own voice shouting over the clattering sound of falling cylinders; Hey! Man, be practical, install a Liquid Oxygen Plant in the hospital premises itself.

Early next morning ignoring the supervision tour, I was busy preparing a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of Health with a clear justification of the investment. Having submitted the proposal followed by a few telephone calls the Ministry responded by approving the proposal.

The proposal was designed to have a Liquid Oxygen Plant with the highest capacity for the hospital and another with less capacity dedicated for the Institute of Cardiology located a little away from the main hospital premises across the street.

A few moons later, a Liquid Oxygen Plant near Ward 13 and a separate smaller plant on the premises of Institute of Cardiology rose to the sky. The copper pipelines were laid connecting all the operating theatres, intensive care units and high dependency units which required continuous uninterrupted supply of oxygen. The project was completed within a matter of a few months providing a great sense of relief to me.

The company which installed the two oxygen tanks is attending to maintenance and repairs. The company regularly monitors the level of consumption and replenishes the tanks. The hospital staff need not intervene.

Needless to mention the relief it brought to me. It was in the year 2006 during which the Hospital installed the two oxygen plants. Since then we did not have to wait for the truck or bother about cylinders. There has not been any loading unloading or clattering of cylinders. I wanted to ensure that my successors would have a permanent reliable source of Oxygen supply for our patients and avoid sleepless nights unlike me and my predecessors.

After the COVID-19 pandemic Oxygen has become the mostly used word among the healthcare workers. After retirement today, I reminisce my time as the Director of NHSL and recall how the disturbed night dawned upon me the idea to install a Liquid Oxygen Plant to ensure the continuous supply of Oxygen to patients gasping for oxygen.

Our neighbouring India is losing thousands of young lives a day due to unavailability of Oxygen. I am happy about the forethought I had 15 years ago long before the term ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’ entered our vocabulary.

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Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?

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By Saman Gunatilake

Emeritus Professor of Medicine

University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Immune boosting is a trending topic these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “immune boosting” is scientifically misleading and often used to market unproven products and therapies. There is no current evidence that any product or practice will contribute to enhanced “immune boosting” protection against COVID-19. This lack of evidence has not stopped wellness gurus with vested interests, and commercial entities from propagating notions of boosting immunity. Internet and popular press are flooded with messages of this nature resulting in an abundance of misinformation circulating online. The public is increasingly going online for health information and questions persist around the kinds of inaccurate information the public is absorbing and the impacts it may be having on health-related decisions and actions.

 

What are Immunity Boosters?

Immunity boosters are products which claim to be able to support your immune system so you aren’t as likely to get sick. Additionally, if you do get sick, taking the supplements will make your illness pass faster. There is no scientific and clinical evidence in humans to support claims of ‘immunity boosting’ foods and other products which supposedly enhance immunity. The body has its own immune system which fights against viral and bacterial invaders. With a normal immune system, we are capable of protecting ourselves against most infections but with certain situations the infection manages to overcome our immune system and cause serious disease and even death. The current Covid 19 pandemic is such a situation. We are in the grip of a spike in infection with over 1000 cases per day seen during the last few days. Total deaths from the pandemic in our country is nearing 700 and the total cases up to now amounts to around 111,800.

With no scientifically established cure for Covid-19 yet and the available recommended treatments limited to severe cases and being not so effective, recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system. Fighting the infection by boosting our immune systems had been the buzzword since the beginning of the pandemic. This has led to many misconceptions, misinforming and misleading the public. Improving the diet, taking vitamins and herbal products, lifestyle changes are proposed as ways of doing this. As a result, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.

One of the common misconceptions is that high doses vitamin supplements and other minerals and nutrients boost one’s immunity. Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets have flooded the market with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity. Promoters of these products indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods, herbal products or the use of specific products.

Is there robust scientific evidence to support these claims for immune system boosting? The answer is no. Immunology experts believe that there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or other products. The immune system is very complex and these claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific.

 

The Immune System

The immune system is activated by things that enter the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like food, drugs and pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognizes as foreign. These are called antigens. Then the immune system sets in motion a complex process that fights the invader – this is the immune response.

There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered. The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves Lymphocytes -T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies produced by these cells as a specific response to the invader’s antigens. Stimulated immune systems release chemical proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. So boosting immunity may lead to unwanted inflammations causing swelling, redness and pain locally and fever and other organ damage.

The Internet searchers will find that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. Of the approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones were diet, fruit, vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, minerals. Interestingly, vaccines, the only proven method that enhances our immune response to an infection is ranked very low. One of the biggest misconceptions is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system. It has been proven, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all. Another misconception is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.

Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes. A cofactor is a non-protein chemical compound or metallic ion that is required for an enzyme’s activity as a catalyst. Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function. So, if you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of these taken does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus. Vitamin C and Zinc deficiencies are very rare unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients. Iron and Iodine deficiencies are seen in communities and more than immune deficiency they cause other problems.

An extremely active immune system, can also be problematic. In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients. A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure. So, if this is the case boosting the immune system in a Covid patient is not a wise thing to do.

 

Market interests add to the myth

The truth is natural immunity in normal people cannot be improved. There are immunocompromised individuals with a poor immunity who are susceptible to infections due to certain illnesses, and how can they stay safe from this highly infectious virus that spreads rapidly? The most effective way is by keeping our communities safe.

 We can do this by attending to the public hygiene of the population exposed to the infection. Providing safe drinking water, providing clean air, providing adequate nutrition — are ways of keeping the people healthy and strong to fight any infections. There are parts of our country fortunately not as bad in India, without access to these basic health requirements. Achieving social distancing in these communities that live in overcrowded households is impossible.

This background, and a new infection with no treatment, led to various interested parties with good and bad intentions in promoting the myth of immune boosting. They have become self-proclaimed experts exploiting this crisis, putting forth all kinds of miraculous non allopathic substitutions. As allopathic medications to be approved, a rigorous procedure has to be observed, they resorted to the easier approach of promoting quick remedies in traditional and herbal products. Unproven ‘natural’ remedies came to the fore in our country in this background where people felt helpless. The vaccine, the only proven way of boosting the immunity of an individual and the population against a specific disease was not available around this time.

There are added dangers in such situations. There may be a lot of drug-drug interactions. If people are consuming allopathic medicines, and then also start consuming these medicinal herbs, the components of the herb will interact with the drug resulting in unknown complications. These unapproved medications can have toxic effects on your kidney, liver and other organs.

Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 companies jumped in on the opportunity to hail themselves as immunity boosting drug producers. However, no products were ever proven to be effective in improving immune responses.

Maintaining a normal immune system

A poor immune system is seen in people with certain ailments. Some are born with defects in their immune system and they are known as immunodeficiencies. People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and auto immune disorders are also vulnerable to catch illnesses easily as their immune systems are weak. People on immunosuppressant medications like steroids and cancer drugs also have a weakened immune system and easily catch infections and develop serious complications easily.

Lifestyle is key for keeping your immune system normal and ready to act with an adequate response when necessary. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle, exercise and enhanced immune function. Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise and stress on the immune response. There are indeed processes that do affect our immune cells and improve their responses. The best one of them, perhaps, is exercise. Many studies have shown that moderate exercise of less than 60 minutes can improve the circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. This can work effectively — not for combating diseases at a specific point in time, but to combat stress hormones in general, which can suppress immune cell function. Extremely high intensity exercise leads to a short duration of compromised immunity, increasing risk for disease in this time period. This is one of the reasons marathon runners or professional sports persons tend to catch a fever or cold in the days following a sporting event. Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight. Therefore, adopting general healthy-living strategies make sense since they are likely to have other proven health benefits. But whether they help to boost the immune system is a controversial issue with no proven answers.

The immune system can also be compromised by many lifestyle habits such as smoking, which is known to affect T and B cells, among a host of other parameters. Diseases like diabetes by themselves result in compromised immune systems. This is why diabetic patients are particularly susceptible to infections. Obesity is another condition with a weak immune system as it predisposes to the development of other illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. There appears to be a connection between poor nutrition and immunity and this is a problem especially in the elderly. Poor nutrition can lead to micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person becomes deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. Deficiency of these can result in a poor immune response to infections. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their food. In them dietary supplements may have some beneficial effects and they should discuss this with their doctors. Taking mega doses of vitamins do not help and can even be harmful.

Every part of your body, including your immune system that fights against infections function better when protected from unwanted damage and bolstered by healthy-living styles. These are – not smoking, taking a diet high in fruit and fibre, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or consuming in moderation, getting adequate sleep, washing hands regularly, developing good food habits, minimizing stress.

However, there currently exists no evidence of any consumable foods or products being able to induce an improvement in immune function. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of the immune system, so far there is no evidence that they actually boost your immunity to the point where you are protected against infection. The only scientifically proven way to boost immunity, the immune system, and an immune response is through vaccinations. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.

So, where do we stand today? Vaccines to boost our immunity against Covid, prevention of spread and catching infection by proper wearing of masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance. These are the scientifically proven methods and others appear to be market-driven myths.

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