Herbs of Love

Pills made from a Peruvian vine known as Cat's Claw are all the rage among Latino health buffs

"Few plants have had the privilege to be subjected to clinical trials," says ASU anthropology professor Michael Winkelman, an herbal-medicine expert. "There's no payback in it. Virtually nobody will do it, because after you spend millions of dollars, anybody can use it. You can't patent a natural product."

Natural remedies in general are belittled, Winkelman agrees, by traditional medicine, as much out of ignorance as out of protectionism. Just the same, he says, some open-minded doctors exist, like the one who called him recently to ask what herbs he could safely recommend to diabetes patients.

The general public, he says, is more open to these things. A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine bears him out: One third of all Americans, the study found, has used some form of alternative treatment at least once, and a healthy number of them elected not to tell their regular doctors about it.

Quoting results of an Italian study published in 1993, Better Nutrition for Today's Living reported that the plant's antioxidant properties--the same ones that make many vegetables good for preventive health care--might quash singlet oxygen, associated with cancer. And a 1985 study by researchers in Munich, Germany, revisited in the June 1995 issue of Health Foods Business, found that una de gato's ingredients improved phagocytosis, the power of white blood cells to dispose of harmful foes.

So far, however, results have been achieved only in test tubes, which could overstate their actual worth.

Mark Hoffman of Being Alive, an HIV/AIDS support group, isn't holding his breath. "In the HIV field, this kind of thing happens every few months," he says. "Some new product comes into acceptance for a short period of time, and then, when all the people aren't cured, it kind of fades. Then the next thing comes around."

Esther Perla isn't waiting for the next thing to come around. She likes her chances with una de gato.

"You never know," she says in unintended understatement. If others can be cured, why can't she? "It makes me feel more confident. Some people don't believe in these things. But if youdon't try it, you don't know."

To combat the ravages of AIDS and its accompanying effects, the doctors at Desert Samaritan Hospital have prescribed for her a number of medications, including AZT, Prozac and Septra. "I don't have faith in those," she says. "I take them because I have to take them."

The virus is winning the war, but you'd never know it to talk to her. She is forthright about her condition, but well aware of the stigma attached to the disease,which is why she does not want herreal name used. A Catholic, she plans to go to Mexico to make offerings at sites where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.

Her faith defies common sense because that's what faith is. Faith gives strength and answers why. And some people get rich peddling it.

Perla's baby son bangs the bottles of una de gato and shark cartilage hard on the living-room table. "No, sweetheart," she says, taking them away. Like his older half sister, he will have to be tested for the HIV virus at some point. Perla's boyfriend refuses; he says no son of a bitch is going to tell him when he's going to die.

"My children, they keep me going," Perla says. "Maybe that's why I take the una de gato."

Her AIDS has brought them all closer together.
"I feel very good about this," she says, cradling the capsules close to her chest. "They tell me I'm going to live only five years. Nah-ah--that's only people who's ready to give up. I'm not ready to die. I'm ready to fight.

"Some people say that for them ... [the virus] has gone bye-bye," she says, her hand shaping wings fluttering away. "And I'm hoping that happens to me, too.

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