Herbal First Aid in the ‘The Jungle’ Calais Refugee Camp

The dedicated team helping in dire circumstances.

(Please note: this article was originally published as my newsletter on 19th Oct 2016, written only days before the Calais camp ‘The Jungle’ was cleared out by the French authorities. Since then the herbal first-aiders have formed a co-ordinated group ‘ Herbalists Without Borders UK & Ireland’ and now co-ordinate herbal medicine support for refugees in-need in various parts of Europe )

As I mentioned in my last newsletter about herbal first aid, people might not realise it but herbal medicines can be dramatically effective in emergency situations.  I teach people how to make and use herbal remedies at home to use as first aid for minor injuries but when used by professionals they can be used in far more serious situations.

As well as having a degree in Herbal Medicine I also trained in occupational first aid. I did this so that I could do herbal first aid work. While volunteering in this area I had incredible experiences treating a range of emergency and acute illnesses and injuries that I would have been unlikely to see in my herbal medicine clinic (where people usually tend to come in with long-term chronic health issues). I looked after people who had bad injuries, severe burns, pleurisy, sick babies, serious asthma attacks and even a lady in labour! This required vigilant monitoring of patients, prescribing and administering effective herbal prescriptions, and also knowing when to transfer a patient to hospital for emergency medical care if necessary.

Catherine Johnson is a qualified medical herbalist based in the UK. She has done first aid work in similar circumstances and events to the ones that I used to work at. She’s trained as an emergency responder and advanced first aider. And she has taken her skills and experience to  the refugee camp ‘The Jungle’ in Calais, where she and other dedicated volunteers do their best to help to relieve some of the suffering, illnesses and ailments of the people that are currently stuck living there. Catherine returned to this camp last Friday. Before she left, I asked her some questions about her previous experiences there.

Vivienne: You’ve been to ‘The Jungle’ numerous times. Please tell us about it.
Catherine:  Yes, I’ve been to Calais five times now for a few weeks each time. I am part of a larger group of herbalists, doctors, nurses, medics and first aiders working to supply herbal and traditional medicines to the many thousands of refugees and unaccompanied children at the Jungle camp, Calais.

V: What kind of treatments do you use in general?
C: . I use integrated medicine [i.e. a mixture of herbal and conventional medicine], so if you need an antibiotic I’m going to send you for those, if herbalmedicine is appropriate, I’m going to use that.

V: And what herbal medicines do you use?
C: I make cough syrup, an anxiety mix, elderberry and echinacea immune tonic and a sleep mix which half the jungle have taken at one point or another.

V: You showed me photos of some very serious injuries that you’ve treated. What did you use to treat these?
C: I use calendula and myrrh for wounds and have treated very bad burns and serious wounds with honey and calendula bandages and had great results. [Note: I’ve seen photos of some of the burns that Catherine has treated. They are very severe indeed and are the sort of burn that people here would be sent straight to hospital to have treated. For them to have been effectively treated with Calendula and honey bandages is phenomenal].

V: Are there any other herbal medicines that you have in your kit, for common conditions that are part of life on the Camp?
C: I have a foot balm for people whose feet are at risk, it’s especially good for diabetic feet and fungal, open wounds on people without access to shoes. I also use an herbal chest balm for congestion and a herbal warming muscle rub for aching joints and muscles, and a range of vitamins and supplements that are suitable for people without adequate nutrition.

V: Do you have a water supply on the Camp? It must be incredibly difficult to work without a reliable water supply. It is usually vital to any first aid service.
C: Yes, water is a problem, we take bottled water with us into the caravans for patient use. Hot water is impossible as we have no electricity, so often [prescribing] herbal teas [as a medicine] is not practical.

V: In what form do you give herbal medicines?
C: Tinctures are not acceptable for many Muslims [because tinctures contain alcohol], so we use syrups made from honey, vinegars, hydrosols and decoctions, powders and of course tinctures and essential oils externally .

V: People who have already attended an herbal medicine class or who make their own remedies from local plants will already be familiar with many of the herbs that you are using at the Camp e.g. calendula, elderberry, echinacea and of course honey. I’m sure they’ll be astonished to learn that these familiar plants and remedies could be applied in such serious and extreme circumstances. How did you know that they would be so effective?
C: Everything I use is evidence based, conforms to the latest pharmaceutical and phyto pharmaceutical research, as well as having an anecdotal evidence base [i.e. history of use as a traditional herbal medicine].

V: This is wonderful work that you are doing. How can people support you if they want to?
C: We have a GoFundMe page. I am raising money to deliver both herbalmedicine and traditional medicine/first aid to refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. The money will be used to buy medicines, herbal medicines as well as buy general first aid supplies which are in high demand, and to fund the cost of travel and accommodation for the medical staff involved.

V: Thank you for taking time out to answer these questions when you are busy packing for another trip to Calais.  And thank you for doing this vital work.

And here’s are some updates from Catherine’s Facebook page yesterday:

“Ran a flu clinic out the boot of my car for 6 hours while the CRS police in riot gear watched me. Treated about 80 people, chatted with many more.  Dished out vitamins to a bunch of 15 year old boys”

“Walking through the jungle and I hear a voice shout ‘hey, doctor, I didn’t die! ‘ turned and saw the happy face of a man I first saw with hepatitis A earlier this year. He was then very unwell, dehydrated, jaundiced and deletions with fever and terrified he was going to die. For several days I treated him and I kept promising him he would not die in this shitty place. Very glad we were right.”

If you would like to help to support this project (by donating money, time or herbal medicines) then please click this link to visit Herbalists Without Borders (UK & Ireland). This website co-ordinates herbal first aid projects at various refugee camps and projects to assist those in need.

I hope this shows how effective and powerful herbal medicines can be when used by trained and experienced professionals. We really could greatly improve medical care and reduce the risk and danger of antibiotic resistance if medicinal plants were used in our hospitals in similar emergencies.


TO LEARN MORE CLICK: Herbalists Without Borders, UK & Ireland.