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S. A. Welgama – A man amongst men

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On the one hundred and tenth birth anniversary of my father-in -law S.A.Welgama I pen this tribute with much affection and pride.Affection as he was a second father to me and pride as he was a man amongst men;a man who stood tall and erect,a man unbowed ,unconquered and unsullied.Of him I could truthfully echo Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome,”let men see,let them know a real man,a man who lives as he was meant to live”.

EARLY LIFE

He was born in the hamlet of Ovitigala,in the verdant county of Pasdun Korale,the county of five yojana (sixty kms in Vedic measure),created by Parakramabahu the Great,by draining the basin of Kalu Ganga.

His mother was fair and comely and taught in the village school ,and the father a farmer tilled his own land.SAW never forgot his roots and even at the height of his fame and wealth would often say,I’m the son of a poor farmer.This alone would have tagged him for greatness, for according to John Ruskin “the first test of a truly great man is his humility.”

The origins of the Welgama clan are shrouded in the mists of time.One school of thought says that they were the caretakers of the Welgama vehera in Kinniya ,Trincomalee.Grateful kings had donated land to them in distant South.The stupa was built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C.and remained unscathed till the end of the Polonnaruwa era.Even the Chola marauders,who razed all they saw ,left it alone as it was a place of worship for Hindu devotees as well,the Navatar Kovil.

Another school is of the view that they were soldiers in the service of the Sinhala kings as evidenced by their ge name Welgama Hewage.This is likely too as the Welgamas were tall and had a martial bearing.

They migrated to the villages of Ihala (upper) and Pahala (lower) Welgama villages separated by a fast flowing river.This could only be forded by a ferry ,until SAW persuaded a friendly minister of state to build a bridge.

SAW had his early schooling in the Ovitigala village.His heart was ,however not in books but in machines and motor vehicles.Many a day he played truant with his classmates,one of whom was to later become an eminent Buddhist monk and a mentor to me and my brother.When I was being screened as a prospective son -in-law ,he made enquiries, from his friend the Rev Kevitiyagala Dhammasidhi.The priest had categorically stated ,’Sir do not look any further,he is the best of the best’.My fate was sealed.

 

ENTREPRENEUR

While still a teenager he apprenticed himself to a local workshop and then came over to Colombo to gain further experience and skills.He had fifty cents in his pocket.The friend who accompanied him returned to the village after two days.But SAW soldiered on and joined the workshop of an English engineer.He worked long and hard and became a master of his trade and also earned the respect and goodwill of his employer,whose pet name for him was Pattison.

Being thrifty he regularly added his wages to a till which was well hidden.With his savings and some help he bought a car for the then princely sum of two thousand rupees ,and plied it for hire between Gampaha and Kaluthara.

As the war clouds gathered in the horizon in the late 1930s he sensed an opportunity in road haulage and this became his trademark.At one stage he owned and controlled over one hundred and fifty trucks and became a trusted agent of the colonial government;transporting goods to and from the Colombo harbour to the massive godowns built in anticipation of wartime food shortages.SAW and Sons became synonymous with road freight.With foresight he bought land at Panchikawatte,an emerging commercial hub for his headquarters.Later with the help of his son Nimal he extended this to a much larger holding.

A prized possession of his was the luxury tourist bus,which he imported when Mr J.R.Jayawardene inaugurated the push for tourism.This was used for family outings too and Kanthi and I remember vividly the visit to his estate with business associates.We also accompanied a group of visiting American cardiologists and spouses to Kandy.On the way ,the ladies started a singsong

to which we had to respond.My contribution was “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” which I had learnt at school.Our guide was a personable young man who later married a young French traveller and settled down in France.Although his fluency in English was not optimal Father saw in him the makings of a good escort.

Having reached the top of the greasy pole ,he knew the value of skills and hard work.He instilled these into the many young men he trained.They were accepted anywhere.The truck drivers employed by him needed two licences;one from the department of motor transport and one from him.He would personally conduct the driving test.In later years his son Mahinda assumed this role.

He had a fondness for new cars especially Mercedes.An exception to the run of Mercedes was the Holden Statesman which he purchased after the Non-Aligned Leaders conference in Colombo.When it was due for repainting,the original colour Salamanca red was not available in SriLanka.Kanthi and I shipped it from Brisbane where we were then living.

The first occasion we met was when he arrived at our house in his magnificent Mercedes.He was accompanied by his beautiful wife Beatrice and his eldest son Melvin.An imposing man dressed in an immaculate white sarong and shirt he was keen to meet the young lad who had been highly recommended as a prospective son in law.After the usual pleasantries ,I joined Melvin who became a close friend.SAW had been much moved that I too was dressed in sarong and shirt.

An interesting quirk of his was the insistence ,that all his vehicle registration numbers should end with the figure five.It’s likely that his birthday being on the fifth of April,this to him was an auspicious number.The denizens of Panchikawatte named him the ‘‘Agata Pahe Mudalali i.e the tycoon with number five at the end.”

Being a man of the soil ,land was at the core of his soul,and he invested in a rubber estate in Kahawatte and then a two hundred and fifty acre rubber plantation” the Deniston” in Mathugama.For the children he bought land in the most fashionable suburb in Colombo and also in Nuwara Eliya a block adjacent to the venerable Grand Hotel.Kanthi and I once spent a night at Deniston in the hilltop estate bungalow.He had arranged for us to be blessed with a ” thovil”, a devil dance ceremony to dispel any unseen hands harassing us; this went on all night.We were exhausted before the performers ,although their colourful costumes,masks,gyrations and the drumming held us spellbound.

About the same time as his rise, there was a group of Sinhala businessmen who too made their mark.They were all southerners who began their careers at the bottom of the pile.SAW and Nawaloka mudalali (H.D.Dharmadasa) were the unofficial leaders of this closely knit cluster.They too never forgot their roots and were all noted for their conviviality,philanthropy and vivacity.Two of their major projects were the Ranweta the gold fence around the Sri Maha Bodhiya and the first coronary care unit in Ceylon.The Sri Maha Bodhiya is the only living relic of the Buddha who attained enlightenment in the shade of the parent tree in BodhGaya.It is the oldest ,historically documented tree in the world.The coronary care unit was built at the instigation of Dr Ivor Obeysekare ,the first cardiologist of Ceylon and a former chief of mine.

SAW was a mover and shaker and associated with the highest in the land.J.R.Jayawardane the first executive president of SriLanka was a good friend and was an attesting witness at all the weddings of his children.He did have friends across the political spectrum including ,Maithripala Senanayake the benign deputy to Mrs Bandaranaike and Peter Kueneman,the sophisticated Cambridge educated leader of the Communist party.Though he “walked with Kings ,he did not lose the common touch” and was equally at home with the masses in villages and the busy bazaars of Colombo.

At the age of sixty five he handed over the control of the trucking company to his sons,but still supervised the estate.The weekly sojourn in the plantation became his greatest pleasure and relaxation.Meandering around ,he may have got to know every tree and shrub,hillock ,valley and stream and mingling with the Indian Tamil workers and villagers gave him a lot of satisfaction.The elder brother whom he adored,lived in a homestead and sharing the customary village fare with him at lunch gave him much gratification.The Sunday visit to the estate was a ritual he maintained till the last week of his life.The bracing air ,the soft breezes ,the solitude and the rural populace seemed to revitalize him.The work was challenging but less so because of his passion and enthusiasm for the land and the labour.

He epitomised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s words that “The heights by great men achieved and kept were not attained by sudden flight,but they while their companions slept,were toiling upward in the night.”

 

FAMILY

Unexpectedly,at the age of thirty three,he met a beautiful Kandyan teenager Beatrice Hidellarachchi.It was akin to Adam meeting Eve and was love at first sight.

 

Like John Milton,in “Paradise Lost”

“He saw grace in all her steps,

Heaven in her eyes,

In every gesture,dignity and love”

 

Beatrice being the cynosure of all eyes and adoration,delighted him ,and he encouraged her to dress herself in haut-monde finery.

It was a marriage made in heaven.and their happy partnership lasted till his passing away in 1990.

There were ten children in the family,five boys and five girls.He was a strict but adoring father.They were all brought up according to conventional Sinhala Buddhist values.Having missed out on a formal education,he made certain that they went to the highest ranking schools regardless of the denomination.For boys ,he chose S.Thomas’s College the famed school by the sea.Girls were admitted to the Holy Family Convent as he had the highest respect and admiration for the Catholic nuns and their discipline.But he also ensured that they got a Buddhist grounding through the Sunday school at the Vajiraramaya temple which was well known for its pious and erudite monks.

He would have loved for one or more of them to become doctors;instead he got two sons in law who achieved eminence in their specialties of medicine.However two sons became leading business men and chartered accountants.Another a prominent politician and one more a German trained gemologist.The youngest son Nalin was sent across to London ,while we were there, for further studies.

He did have reservations about girls attending universities ,but sent them to finishing schools where they became versed in social graces and upper class cultural rites.Later on he relented and permitted the youngest daughter Pradeepika to study at the Colombo Law school.

As he grew older he mellowed and relished having a drink with Mahinda and me.The faithful domestic Gamini brought his bottle of whiskey and he poured the pegs to all of of us himself.In our younger days we never imbibed with our elders.When he desired company ,he went to the Automobile Association or the Angler’s club.One night he spied us,the two eldest sons in law enjoying a drink in the confines of a car ,with our wives and sent us a round of drinks and a tray of devilled prawns which was a specialty of the AA.

He was a believer in rebirth and would say with conviction that Kanthi his second daughter was the reincarnation of his beloved mother,perhaps because she looked after him like a mother;and Nalin the youngest son,the reincarnation of his father.While on a trip to India ,he insisted on selecting Kanthi’s wedding saree himself ,while mother selected sarees for the other daughters.Kanthi’s saree was more expensive than all the others.

A special relationship too was with his second granddaughter Sadia.I reproduce what she wrote.

“He loved to put his dark arm against mine and tell me we were the same colour.We were.

He called me Podi Sriyani.( Loku Sriyani was his daughter).

He was a wonderfully patient and loving grandfather.He had a warm hug which made you feel loved and how I loved sitting on his lap.It felt like a very safe place to be.

He had a twinkle in his eye and always wore his hat.He had good taste and style.I had a feeling that he had some great stories to share ,but that I was too young to hear them…

He was magic.I still miss that magic.”

 

PHILANTHROPY

SAW was large hearted and munificent primarily to but not exclusively to his village ,villagers and less affluent relatives. A monk told us how ,even Beatrice was not aware of the monthly emoluments he dispensed to the needy.

The Diyapattugama junior school,now named S.A.Welgama junior school was given a large assembly hall.He built a new Stupa at the Ovitigala temple;Kanthi and I joined in this meritorious deed by gifting the “Chuda Manikya” the large crystal placed at its very top.Electricity was provided to the shrine and its environs.The Bodhi tree in the temple (the prathana ,i.e supplication,Bodhi) was brought by him from Bodhgaya.

After his passing away Beatrice built a maternity home in his memory in the village of Wettawe.This had been a cherished ambition of his.His own mother is said to have succumbed at childbirth,and he wanted the impoverished women of his village to have easy access to modern medical facilities.

SAW of course provided employment to hundreds of villagers at his establishments.

 

RETIREMENT.

In retirement he indulged in travel which he had long denied himself.He wanted to ” walk where he had never been and wonder at the beauty of this world”Kanthi and I were lucky that we were able to host him in Britain and also in USA.The long morning walks,the coach trips and the sundowners ,while the ladies cooked supper ,brought us closer in a way not conceivable before.He revelled in the sights and history of UK Germany and Switzerland and also Disneyland and Hawaii.One of the highlights was his visit to the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart.The automated production of his favourite cars enthralled him.Caravans enticed him,as did the miniature trains he rode in a fun park in Newcastle upon Tyne.He did not care much for shopping ,although Mother and Kanthi dragged him along,and grumble that he had become a ‘nattambi’,a carrier of goods.I feel however he secretly enjoyed seeing Beatrice buying apparel and wares unavailable in Ceylon at that time of austerity.For him ,all he wanted was a couple of hats.

The beauty of the Lake District,the Black Forest and Switzerland and the ancient cities of London Edinburgh and Freiburg fascinated him.

He was indeed a man for all seasons.

We rejoice in a life lived to the fullest and that we were blessed to be touched by this great man.

 

Kumar Gunawardane

Emeritus Consultant Cardiologist

The Townsville University Hospital.

I acknowledge the help of Ven Suriyagoda Siri Dhamma,Nimal and Mahinda Welgama and Sadia Samarasinghe.



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Features

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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