In the article about papaya leaf tea that was published in EDN Issue 77, we did not mention the possibility that regular ingestion of the tea could lead to side effects (because we had not heard of any). Since we published that article, a few items have come to our attention that we would like to share.
Dr. Phil Thuma with the Macha Malaria Research Institute in Zambia read our article and pointed us to some literature about papaya seeds. The abstracts that he sent indicated that papaya seed extract has been found to lower sperm count in rats (this was a reversible effect, and sperm counts gradually increased when the rats were no longer fed papaya seed extract). Papaya seeds have also been used by some women to induce abortions, though we do not know how many seeds were used or if the seeds actually caused an abortion. In addition, some studies suggest that consumption of unripe papaya fruit (which contains a high concentration of latex) can induce abortion, and that consumption of ripe fruit can act as a contraceptive. (References for the abstracts can be sent upon request). For perspective, however, we note that green papaya fruit is commonly eaten in many countries.
The above information applies specifically to papaya seeds and fruit, not to tea made from papaya leaves. However, Dr. Thuma felt that a caution was in order, and commented, “It could well be that papaya leaves are safebut given the data on papaya seeds, I think we need to be cautious on recommending the leaves, until someone has shown that the leaves are also safe!”— but given the data on papaya seeds, I think we need to be cautious on recommending the leaves, until someone has shown that the leaves are also safe!”He added, “I think we have to be careful with people saying papaya leaf worked for them to prevent malaria—especially in areas where there is not very high transmission of malaria! Since even in very high transmission areas, only about 2 to 4 % of female Anopheles mosquitoes actually carry malaria (Plasmodium falciparum), it could be just by chance that someone drinking papaya leaf tea never contracted malaria—and it might have nothing to do with drinking the tea!”
We also heard from Christine Wiltse, working in Ghana, who shared that she and her husband began drinking papaya leaf tea in January 2002. She wrote, “We drank two cups weekly and were free from malaria for two months or so. That’s good for us. After the first bout we couldn’t stop it. Let me mention—we were very diligent in drinking our tea. Then we missed one week. That’s the mistake we made. A week later we both fell sick.
“Thinking the dried leaves may not be powerful enough, we changed to fresh picked and boiled leaves. I can’t say they stopped us from getting malaria. So we tried three cups a day for three to five days (depending on symptoms) as a treatment. That didn’t really work either. What it did do was hold the malaria back. This is also very helpful if a bout of malaria wouldn’t fit into our schedule (if we were traveling or hosting guests, etc.). A bout of malaria can take you out of action for a few days. So we’d brew some fresh tea leaves and hold it off. Three cups a day usually did the trick. When the symptoms began to rise we’d drink a cup. Within minutes they would subside.
“After our ‘program,’ travels or whatever, we’d stop the tea and let the malaria come to a head—usually one day is all it took. Then we took a regular treatment (chloroquine, fansidar, etc.)…the tea didn’t necessarily stop or cure our malaria. It was effective in holding back an untimely attack. We were pleased with that. Although it’s bitter on the palate it’s not bitter to the stomach.
”There is one concern I personally have with drinking the tea. It made my hair fall out. I wasn’t bald but I was shedding far more than the daily norm. If we had any kind of plumbing system, the local plumber would be a rich man
.“Needless to say my hair made me question what the tea was actually doing inside me. I had the same effect several years ago while taking Paludrine daily.”
We continue to hear from people about the use of papaya leaf tea in relation to malaria. Christine Leonard, working with SIL in Cameroon, wrote that she uses papaya leaf tea to test for malaria at the onset of “mild” symptoms (headache, nausea or a low-grade fever). She commented that malaria is a severely mismanaged disease, with people generally treating it too late for a variety of reasons. These include uncertainly if the illness is malaria, hesitancy to send in a blood test if symptoms are mild (because of the expense of the test and the chance of false “negatives”), and a reluctance to use harsh medicines when they may be unnecessary.
In her e-mail, Ms. Leonard wrote, “We are translators with SIL in Cameroon and have been using papaya leaf [tea] for prophylaxis, and occasional treatment for mild malaria, for approximately four years. Also, over the years I’ve developed a way of using papaya leaf [tea] to test for malaria.”
“As soon as you recognize mild malaria-like symptoms, or whenever you have a persistent headache, stomach upset, or slight temperature, drink [tea made from] 1 to 2 leaves throughout the day (1 leaf for a child). Repeat the following day or two until you are feeling better. If you notice you are feeling better within half a day or within 24 hours, this could mean one of two things: a) you only had a 24-hour flu (or the like), or b) you do have malaria and the papaya leaf is knocking it out. At this point you can either: “1) Treat for malaria. Continue drinking tea made from two leaves a day for 3-5 days (if you can stand it—it’s bitter) to see if you can completely knock it out. [Later in this article, Ms. Leonard describes her method of preparing papaya leaf tea.] However, if symptoms return one or two weeks later, you should take a regular malaria treatment. In my experience, papaya leaf can work for treating mild malaria, but it is not 100% [effective]. (It seems to work well for the Baka who have tried it as a treatment; perhaps it works better for them because they have more immunity than we do. Whenever they appear to have malaria (not too severe) and tell me they have no money for a treatment, I give them two papaya leaves and tell them to get four more and keep drinking [tea made from the leaves] until the symptoms have been gone for a few days–it’s a treatment that anyone can afford!)
“2) Complete the malaria test by continuing to drink leaf [tea] until symptoms are gone (1 or 2 days), then stop and see if the symptoms come back (this could take from half a day to a week or two depending on the concentration of parasites in your body). If the symptoms don’t come back, you probably didn’t have malaria. If the symptoms do come back, chances are you have malaria and should treat it (either use papaya if symptoms are very mild, or a regular treatment).
“Remember, the key to avoiding severe malaria, is to drink a leaf AS SOON AS YOU NOTICE ANY SYMPTOMS OF ILLNESS. If you take the leaf right away, it will keep your symptoms from getting unmanageable during the process of determining whether or not you have malaria. If I’m not mistaken, every case of severe malaria that we’ve seen…was a result of waiting too long to treat. The beauty of this method is that, with the papaya leaf [tea], we can treat for malaria right away, or prevent malaria from occurring with other illnesses, and thus not allow symptoms to get out of control. I’ve been using this method for a couple of years now, even with the children, and am very satisfied with it.“The ECHO article explains many ways to prepare a papaya leaf, but I’ll share with you what works for us. You can use any kind of leaf (take the entire “hand”, not just a “finger”), dead, brown, yellow, or green. I don’t like using dead leaves because they break up too much when you wash them. Yellow ones seem to be less bitter, but I wonder if they are less effective (my house help seems to think so but I have not noticed this). Wash it and stuff it into a pot (you can rip the leaf up a bit). Cover with water (just enough to cover the leaves–remember the more water you add the more you have to drink!) Boil for approximately 15 minutes. Pour through a sieve [and collect the liquid]. When the leaf is cool, squeeze out liquid and pour through sieve as well. [My husband] Yves and I like to refrigerate it and drink it cold because this way we can drink it fast and get it over with quicker. For the kids we add lemon and sugar.
“A note about drinking papaya leaf [tea] for prophylaxis: Yves has been drinking it weekly for four years, myself for two. I think it works very well when taken every 7 days or less. It passed the Kribi test when we were eaten alive by mosquitoes for 7 days. The drawback to papaya leaf [tea] for prophylaxis is that it is more work than just popping a pill. Sometimes it hasn’t been convenient to get and prepare a leaf, so I put it off for a day or two. When I did this too often, Yves started to get headaches after day 7 which would go away after he drank the leaf [tea], but return again every 7th day (mild malaria). I think ideally, a smaller amount of papaya leaf tea should be drunk twice a week instead of once.”
When I asked where she and her husband had heard about papaya leaf tea, Ms. Leonard wrote, “We first heard about papaya leaf tea from a Catholic sister who has been working in our area for 25+ years. She started drinking it as a last resort when she had continued bouts of resistant malaria and was forced to leave the country. Her testimony is that it has kept her clear of malaria to the degree that she could continue working in Cameroon.” Ms. Leonard does not know of anyone else who uses papaya leaf tea to test for malaria.
Berkelaar, D. 2003. Update on Papaya Leaf Tea. ECHO Development Notes no. 80