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Who is challenging Ayurveda in today’s India? Meet Kerala doctor, Cyriac Abby Philips

The Liver Doc Abby Philips is now the go-to person for Ayush-related liver injury in Kerala and on social media. And he has taken on the formidable Ayurveda-Homeopathy industrial complex.

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It can’t possibly be easy being the Ayurveda-busting doctor Cyriac Abby Philips. Not at a time when there’s a huge political and government push to revive the glory of Ayurveda.

For the last five years, a hepatologist and clinician-scientist from Kerala, Abby Philips has been treating patients suffering from complications arising due to the use of alternative medicines. And since 2019, he has used his Twitter handle — @theliverdr — to carry a surgical strike on Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Siddha, and Unani.

With his sharp, take-no-prisoner attitude, Abby Philips rejects prevalent notions about home remedies such as jaggery or turmeric or giloy, discusses case details where patients suffer due to unscientific treatments, posts research studies and scientific papers busting common myths, exposes misleading or unproven claims made in Ramdev’s Patanjali product advertisements and comes down hard on anyone pushing the oft-repeated claims about the “benefits” of Homeopathy or Ayurveda. By his own admission, he has been “very harsh on Homeopathy this year (which) has caused Homeopaths great social/career damage”. So what does he do? He offers a 2-minute “apology” in an interview with stand-up comedian Kajol Srinivasan. “Homeopathy is the world’s longest-running circus,” he told the comedian.

Abby Philips’s battle against Ayurveda started in 2017 when a group of teetotalers showed up with all the symptoms of alcohol-induced liver failure. With a diagnosis of exclusion, Abby and his team found that Ayurveda pills were the cause. Since then, he has made it his mission to educate the masses about the harmful effects of pseudoscientific ‘medicine’.

“There’s an idea that herbal is safe and even if it’s not effective, it’s not harmful. This is what I want to change,” Abby says, speaking to ThePrint.

He has now become the go-to person for Ayush-related liver injury in Kerala and also on social media. In the process, he has taken on the formidable Ayurveda-Homeopathy industrial complex, received threats, and legal notices.

A tougher battle in India

Abby’s fiery presence on Twitter, where he goes by the name of The Liver Doc, is what has spread his message far and wide. His no-nonsense approach and dry humour have won him many fans.

It’s not an easy task, he says. While pseudoscience is a problem across the world, it takes on a unique character in India. “It is deeply linked with religion, culture and now politics.” His weapon of choice in this crusade is science. While there is public awareness about the risk of heavy metal presence in ayurvedic medicine, Abby says that the herbs themselves — ashwagandha, giloy, turmeric, etc — can cause harm. “It may create new issues or exacerbate pre-existing conditions,” he adds.

His most liked recent tweet debunks ‘myths’ — Jaggery is not healthier than sugar, Juice detox & detox water are useless.

Coming second is a tweet with a picture of Chyawanprash biscuits captioned: “I’d rather have my wisdom tooth removed without anaesthesia than have this.”

“Abby’s clinic should be recognised as a nodal pharmacovigilance centre where Ayush personnel can be sent to be trained,” said an active, outspoken critic of herbal drugs and a practitioner of Ayurveda.

Also read: Breast milk sales picking up in India. Is it dairy or Ayurveda?

‘Rich and powerful’ vs Abby

The political push for Ayurveda intensified in 2014. The Ministry of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) was also formed this year. In 2018, the Narendra Modi government allocated Rs 144 crore to the ministry to develop alternative medicines — the very medicines that Abby’s research claims cause liver injuries, which are sometimes fatal.

Just recently, PM Modi inaugurated the All India Institute of Ayurveda in Goa, along with two other Ayush institutes.

Abby knows only too well what — and who — he is up against.

Senior colleagues warned him that his activism would put him in “danger from the Ayush lobby and the government”. Nationalistic and culturally prideful doctors have discouraged him. But Abby is steadfast in his mission.

S. Sudhindran, department of organ transplantation, Amrita Institute, recalls when the “rich and powerful” Ayurveda lobby tried to make a journal, Hepatology Communications, retract one of Abby’s articles on giloy.

“What sets him apart is his commitment despite multiple similar threats. In another case, where Herbalife, a US-based herbal supplement company succeeded in getting his article about them retracted, Abby gave a complaint against the journal (Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology) editors. He has the courage to stand against the lobby,” Sudhindran says.

Abby was also threatened with defamation by the Ayush ministry over his views on giloy, a herb used extensively in Ayurveda. The Prime Minister’s Office had received a letter in September 2021, which was forwarded to the Ayush ministry. Abby was served a notice from the Kerala State Medical Council for Indian Systems of Medicine in February 2022 and cleared of all charges in October.

With such attacks and his penchant for not backing down, it comes as no surprise that he has a lawyer on speed-dial.

He is the president of the Mission for Ethics and Science in Healthcare (MESH), a collective of like-minded individuals started by Arif Hussain Theruvath, a former homoeopath.

“A lawyer, who is part of MESH, works pro-bono if I or any other members run into legal trouble,” Abby says, adding that for bigger cases, such as the writ petition against homoeopathic medicines that’s currently in the Supreme Court, all the members pitch in money. The petition, which challenged the government’s push of Arsenicum Album for treating Covid in children, was first filed in the Kerala High court in October 2021. When it was dismissed, Abby approached the Supreme Court, which notified the Ayush ministry in March. The ministry is yet to respond.

Lab attacked, personal threats

Apart from those who try to discredit him, there has also been harassment and daily irritants.

Abby recalls when the name and location of the lab he used to test products at were leaked. “A group of homoeopaths broke into the lab, started harassing the staff, and posted photos on Facebook calling for violence,” he says.

He switched facilities and has managed to keep the new location anonymous.

A Christian doctor from Kerala taking on Ayurveda is doubly vulnerable. He routinely gets called a ‘commie’ and ‘Pakistani’ and was once referred to as the ‘present-day Khilji’ on social media. His method of dealing with online backlash is to just block the trolls.

Also read: Homeopathy as Ideology

How he got here 

Abby Philips blocks out the noise by going back to science. He classifies himself as a physician-scientist — a doctor who treats patients and does research. He credits his father, Dr Philip Augustine, for instilling a scientific temperament in him from an early age. Augustine, a gastroenterologist, won Padma Shri in 2010.

Abby’s colleagues also applaud his scientific outlook. “He doesn’t use any treatments on his patients unless he has justified it scientifically and through his own observations,” notes Dr Ajay Kumar Patwa, additional professor, gastroenterology and hepatology unit, King George Medical University, Lucknow.

But many are not ready to believe that he is on this mission to just advocate scientific temperament. There must be a larger motive or force behind this, they say. If nothing else, he is just dismissed as a self-promoter and attention-seeker.

A Kerala-based Ayurveda practitioner-cum-activist alleges that Abby’s stance against Ayush is “for publicity”. “He doesn’t follow the right protocol for testing and claims his studies are accepted by international journals. The Ayush ministry has also spoken against him,” this person told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

However, Dr Libin Abraham, a scientist working in a Canadian biotech startup, says that he was taught to “rip apart” academic papers and that he put Abby’s papers through the same scrutiny. “His work and data are very extensive and rigorous,” says Libin.

The Ayurveda practitioner also says it’s not right to point fingers only at Ayurveda because liver disease can come from anywhere. But Abby’s colleagues say he always rules out other possibilities before diagnosing a patient with an Ayush-related injury.

When Abby’s “lack of training” in Ayurveda or his credentials was pointed out to him, he responded with a quote from his friend: “The idea that physicians shouldn’t express opinions about quackery because they aren’t trained in that quackery is nonsense. It directly interferes with our patient outcomes. We have the right to talk about it.”

GG Gangadharan, director of Bengaluru-based Ramaiah Indic Specialty Ayurveda (RISA) hospital, says Abby’s research is “ridiculous”.

“Abby isolates one molecule of the herb and says it can cause adverse effects. But ayurveda prescribes herbs as a whole. It’s ridiculous to separate one chemical component and classify the whole herb as poisonous,” Gangadharan said.

He added that he has seen “100 cases where liver function has improved” over a six-month period after giloy was prescribed.

Gangadharan also said Ayurveda acknowledges that too much of a herb or a herb taken in the wrong context can be dangerous. “Nothing is good or bad in itself.”

Regardless, Abby’s patients vouch for him. Sunitha Antony was given Ayurveda pills, Himalaya’s Liv 52, for jaundice by an allopathic doctor in Kuwait which worsened her symptoms. “I was suffering for a year without a diagnosis before I consulted Abby,” she says. Today, she describes him as “a life-saver”.

A week of tests showed that the pills were the culprit. “I was shocked, but stopped right away,” she says.

Abby says Liv 52 is a known aggravator of pre-existing liver disease. He has a 28-tweet thread explaining why the combination of herbs in the pills is unsafe.

Not everyone who comes to him has Ayush-related injuries, but his patients are well aware of his anti-herbal medicine stance and support it. One such patient is Anilkumar PD who first consulted Abby four years ago.

“I was given three months to live when a relative referred me to Abby. He is like a God to me,” he says.

Work-life balance

His Twitter banner features an animated version of him holding a liver. His focus on the organ seems to repel many — from Indian ayurvedics to German homoeopaths.

“Decades ago, I used to collaborate with artists around the globe for online design competitions,” Abby says, and recalls commissioning the banner from a South African artist he met during that time.

While his Twitter is a shrine to his scientific temperament, his Instagram is where he hangs up his lab coat. It is filled with images of his family, food, his gaming set-up and his many dogs.

Abby’s escape is PC gaming, and he’s built himself an impressive custom set-up complete with “geeky” memorabilia and “RGB lighting” — his home and studio are filled with pop-culture collectables and graphic novels.

Another topic he can speak about endlessly is dogs. Abby mourned the passing of his dalmatian Jupiter in August, with a 32-tweet thread. He currently has four dogs at home, three of which are Jupiter’s pups — Chase, Cherry and Cheetah. The fourth is a pug named Hero.

Projects are knocking on Abby’s door constantly. There is a stream of patients to his clinic and he just published his 16th paper this year. On Twitter, people regularly ask him to “approve” alternative medicine, an approval he says they will never get from him.

But he’s currently retired from long Twitter threads in favour of a new project — a book deal that he is aiming to finish in a year.

(Edited by Prashant)

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