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The challenge with African countries promoting traditional cures for Covid-19 without research

REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
A patient receives medicine during her treatment with a spiritual and traditional healer in Sudan
Yaoundé, Cameroon

After seeing traditional Zulu healers using the medicinal plant Sutherlandia Frutescens or Cancer bush to treat HIV/AIDS patients during the height of the South African epidemic in the late 1990s it would take a health authorities a full year before the efficacy of the herbs could even be fully tested by scientists.

Twenty years on, Africa, a continent with some 5,000 recognized medicinal plants, is in a challenging situation with the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization, Bill Gates and other public health officials have repeatedly warned the disease has the potential to overwhelm the underserved health care systems of African countries characterized by inadequate infrastructure and too few medical personnel.

WHO’s Africa office has been cautious but says it “supports scientifically-proven traditional medicine.”

With over 46,000 confirmed infections for the coronavirus and 1,800 deaths, according to the WHO, African countries are the least hit in the global pandemic so far relative to a 1.2 billion population. Yet there are fears of more people getting infected in coming weeks and months due to the limited availability of personal protective equipment, shortage of hospital beds and the lack of a clear-cut curative treatment. And most of the equipment have to be imported from wealthy countries who are also bearing the brunt of the virus – the countries are prone to restricting exports and raising prices.

This aspect has heightened debates in many African countries on how to find local treatments, not just from African scientists but to also start to look into the many traditional herbal medicines and plants which have been used for centuries across different cultures on the continent.

The highest profile example so far has been Madagascar with its herbal tonic “COVID-Organics”, which is being championed strongly by island state’s president Andry Rajoelina. The remedy, which contains the Artemisia annua (Sweet wormwood) plant often used to treat malaria is being ordered by Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Congo-Brazzaville.

AP Photo/Sukhdev Chattbar
Examining Artemisia Annua plants on a farm in Arusha, Tanzania, on Wednesday, June 8, 2005.

But WHO’s Africa region has been cautious on promoting its use even while maintaining it “supports scientifically-proven traditional medicine.” “Medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua are being considered as possible treatments for Covid-19 and should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects,” it  said in a statement.

In Cameroon, a Catholic Church archbishop says he has discovered a remedy for the virus based on his 30 years of research into herbal medicine. Archbishop Samuel Kleda claims have attracted plenty of attention in the central African country as he’s been offering the “Essential Oils” remedy for free. It has prompted Cameroon’s government to dispatch a team to study the treatment.

But while the Cameroon government has affirmed its interest in traditional medicine, the country has ordered chloroquine, already commonly used locally as an anti-malaria drug,  and azithromycin (an anti-biotic) to treat coronavirus infections.

The Cancer bush plant was used by South African herbalists to help fight the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 20 million people. The same herb was developed by an African indigenous plant company to treat cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes and other diseases. Phyto Nova researched the plant’s properties for three years.

Part of the challenge for African countries is many have very small health budgets in the first place and a tiny share of that dedicated to supporting local research and development. Up to 80% of Africans use medicinal plants for healing at some point in their lives, but without rigorous research they aren’t all feasible to develop into widely available commercial drugs.

“The normal process of testing (a drug) takes long because you have to do all the phases,” says Dr. Zabulon Yoti, WHO Africa Regional emergencies director. “You need to do testing in animals before you come to humans. When it comes to humans, you need to test a small group of people and also watch for all effects while testing—the positive ones, side effects and some medium to long term effects. Then you can give to a larger population.”

“Normally it takes 10 months plus to get medicine but for Ebola we had a vaccine within a short time,” says Dr Zabulon. “We use those processes of trying to hasten and working in a shorter time. It is not only for African traditional medicines but it is for every medicine all over the World,” Dr Zabulon.

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