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  • Is 'Usog' for Real?

    Find out the truth once and for all behind this age-old Filipino belief.
    by Ina Atutubo, MD .
Is 'Usog' for Real?
PHOTO BY @Pratchaya/iStock
To read this story in Tagalog, click here.
  • “Usog” is a Filipino belief that we all grew up with. It is believed to be a discomfort brought about by a stranger or visitor thought to have an evil eye (masamang mata) or who brings an evil wind (masamang hangin) or a hex. A simple greeting or praise like "wow! Such a cute baby!" is said to be enough to cause the hex or usog. To counter the usog, the stranger would usually say "pwera usog!" then lick his or her thumb and apply saliva while tracing a cross on the baby's forehead or abdomen.

    The afflicted are usually infants and toddlers who may have a bloated tummy, followed by incessant crying and later, farting, very much similar to the symptoms of colic. The child may also experience fever or nausea and vomiting, supposedly as signs of usog. Sometimes an unton, a tiny red pillow containing “kontra-usog” materials like tree bark or other “anting-anting”, is kept pinned on baby’s clothing in order to prevent usog.

    If the child is afflicted with usog, an elder in the family would normally try to ”treat” the baby by applying coconut oil (langis) or aceite de manzanilla (chamomile oil) to warm the baby’s belly. Others would recommend going to an albularyo or a hilot (faith healer) who would typically use a concoction of different leaves, like bayabas, sambong, among others. This assortment of leaves is chewed by the hilot and spit out then spread onto the baby’s abdomen while an orasyon or bulong is said. 

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    On the medical front, discoveries about the components of saliva reveals that it actually contains a substance called opiorphin, related to morphine and other opioids, which are generally used in modern medicine as a pain killer. Research done in the Pasteur Institute in Paris has proven the effect of opiorphin as an analgesic but, so far, only to rats. More research must be made if this has any actual benefit to humans.  

    It goes, without saying, too, that the spitting of saliva is so unsanitary. There are many diseases that are transmitted through our saliva, such as the flu, common cold, swine flu, mumps, chicken pox, measles, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, and German measles, among others. Another consideration is allergic reactions, which some babies might have as a result of the oils or leaves that are applied onto his skin.

    It might seem strange to modern medicine that there is such a thing as usog. It would seem unbelievable that a simple stare or mere words could actually inflict harm on people, especially to children. However, such is the belief of our elders. For the most part, we follow their advice anyway, out of respect, for, as we say in the vernacular, “wala naman mawawala pag ginawa natin.”

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    These beliefs started long before our great grandparents were born, and the treatments have been passed on from generation to generation. With the help of modern medicine, we are now well-informed of the disease processes, how we get them, how we can avoid them, how to treat them. Even in the Philippine Pediatric Society and American Academy of Pediatrics, there are no guidelines for the use of unproven forms of treatment.
     
    It is always best to take caution, to be wary and careful. While it’s true that there might be nothing to lose if you believe in folklore, weighing the risks before jumping in and subjecting your child to the various "treatments” that are not recommended by modern medicine is advisable. Follow your maternal instinct; if you feel the need to have your baby checked, you are probably right. Bring your baby to your pedia for your peace of mind.

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    Sources:
    •    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol 103, p 17979), Nelsons Textbook of Pediatrics
    •    Stuartxchange.com

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