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Burning Herbs for a Burning Need: an Interview with Moxa Africa’s Merlin Young

Merlin Young seems to be rather well named. For many tuberculosis sufferers in Uganda and South Africa, the health benefits that they garner from Merlin and his Moxafrica project means he might as well be a real sorcerer, rather than simply named after one.

Moxafrica was established by British acupuncturist Merlin and friend and colleague Jenny Craig in 2008, to apply the ancient technique of Japanese moxibustion to the largest health epidemic of our time – tuberculosis. At first l thought it odd that someone from England could be so passionate about an ancient disease that I’ve only heard about from Jane Austen. Isn’t TB almost eradicated? But, after a few minutes chatting to Merlin, I realised how dramatically wrong I was. Although for many people in the industrialised world tuberculosis may seem like a thing of the past, there are currently an estimated 1 in 3 people worldwide or 2.3 BILLION human beings, infected with it (read those figures again slowly).

In 2012, 1.3 million people were estimated to die of TB. And Merlin thinks the real number is probably a lot higher. This is a huge global emergency and relatively little is being done about it.

We were curious to learn about this innovative project that uses an ancient Japanese acupuncture technique to address this serious global health concern, so when Merlin was in Australia earlier this year, we caught up for a coffee to find out more about the project and the man behind it.

Merlin traces his passion in healthcare to around 20 years ago when his health started to fall apart, after 15 stressful years in the construction industry:

I started taking an interest in my own health and what to do about it. I came unwillingly to acupuncture (as I don’t like needles) but I found it really helped. I realised that I could continue in the industry I had been working in and probably destroy myself, or I could try to do something worthwhile with my life and help other people the way I had been also been helped.”

Surely this dislike of needles is unusual for an acupuncturist, although perhaps that is why he has ended up focusing on moxibustion. Related to acupuncture and using many of the same focal points on the body, moxibustion involves burning tiny amounts of refined mugwort directly on the skin, rather than piercing the skin with needles. Research has shown that it stimulates circulation and immune function, and in fact it has a long history of successful use for TB in Japani.

Such research lies at the heart of Moxafrica; Merlin’s biggest hope for the project is that high quality trials can be done in partnership with Ugandan and Japanese universities, and that larger organisations such as WHO will adopt moxibustion as a part of a strategy for dealing with drug-resistant TB. In Uganda and South Africa, they have been using moxa to improve the outcome of the conventional drug treatments including in patients co-infected with HIV and some with drug-resistance. More recently they have been sponsoring a Phase II Randomised Control Trial (RCT) to try to establish scientific evidence of effect. This RCT is now in its final stages and if it proves positive the next step will be to investigate the growing number of people who can’t receive any drug therapy: those infected with drug-resistant TB. Already, some of the moxibustion treatments have been life-changing, with many having greatly increased quality of life and some showing complete recovery from the illnessii. If it can be shown to help those with drug-resistant disease the potentials will be even greater.

Many experts have argued through the centuries that tuberculosis is largely a disease of poverty, and poverty is certainly rife in Sub-Saharan Africa. Merlin defines poverty as a fundamental uncertainty about how you are going to cope with things tomorrow – whether that is food, a place to sleep or health problems. Despite this anxiety, one of the most striking things about Uganda for Merlin was the positive attitude of the people.

One of the very first impressions I got was how people who lived on the sharp edge of poverty seemed to be happier than the people who live in England with so much. The general spontaneous level of happiness is very high. I don’t know how they cope with the fundamental uncertainty of their lives.”

For this reason, he sees the work of Moxafrica as an exchange of skills: although we have certain tools for healthcare that are being taught by the Moxafrica team, “there is a way of living that we should be learning from them!”

Although he strikes me as a compassionate and positive man, Merlin insists he has long been pessimistic about humanity. Since starting Moxa Africa however, his view has been subtly transformed:

“The difference is that now I have a way to actually do something! We all beef about this, we beef about that, but we rarely have the power to do anything about it. With Moxafrica I have a place where I can channel my skills and talents to have a positive impact”.

At the risk of closing with a paltry pun, I can’t help but find it comforting and inspiring to hear that Merlin has rediscovered magic – in the form of human engagement.

i See: Amagai T, Itoi M. 1996. ‘The immune system and acupuncture moxibustion’. Japan Society of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 46(4):315-325.; Tang Z, Song X, Li J, Hou Z, Xu S. 1996. ‘Studies on anti-inflammatory and immue effects of moxibustion’ Chen Tzu Yen Chiu, 21(2):67-70. ; Shimetaro Hara. 1929. ‘Recovery tendencies of tuberculosis animals treated with moxa’. Fukuoka University Medical Journal, 22:5.

ii See: Merlin Young. 2014. Blowing in the Wind: Drug resistant TB and the Poor. London: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

– by Stephanie Barlow, OHO Health Ventures Program Manager