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Traditional medicine and cure for malaria

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The stakeholders say if funds are released for research and development of traditional medicine practices and products, the country will cut down the health budget drastically and reduce medical tourism.


It was very interesting to hear officials of the Federal Government of Nigeria announcing, the other day, the creation of a traditional medicine department in the Ministry of Health to find a cure for malaria.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), traditional medicine is the sum total of all knowledge and practices, whether explicable or not, used in diagnosis, prevention and elimination of physical, mental or social imbalance and relying exclusively on practical experience and observations handed down from generation to generation, whether verbally or in writing. It encompasses all kinds of folk medicine, unconventional medicine and indeed any kind of therapeutical method that had been handed down by the tradition of a community or ethnic group. So, it is a cultural genre of medicine, which is common in various communities of the world.

In Nigeria, traditional medicine has developed in various communities in response to the health needs of the people. The British colonial masters brought in orthodox medicine and today, both systems of medicine exist in the country; and they have the primary objective to cure, manage or prevent diseases and maintain good health.

Thus, various forms of therapies such as herbal medicine, massage, homeopathy, mud bath, music therapy, wax bath, reflexology, dance therapy, hydrotherapy, mind and spirit therapies, self-exercise therapies, radiation and vibration, osteopathy, chiropractice, aromatherapy, preventive medicine, radiant heat therapy, therapeutic fasting and dieting spinal manipulation, and psychotherapy are just a few elements of traditional medicine.

The custodians and administrators of the various forms of traditional medicine are popularly referred to as traditional healers. As WHO stated, a traditional healer is a person who is recognised by the community in which (s)he lives as competent to provide health care by using vegetable, animal and mineral substances and certain other methods based on the social, cultural and religious background, as well as on the knowledge, attributes and beliefs that are prevalent in the community, regarding physical, mental and social well-being and the causation of disease and disability. They include herbalists, traditional birth attendants (TBAs), traditional surgeons and traditional medicinal ingredient dealers. So, traditional medicine has come to stay and has been recognised by WHO and even the African Union (AU).

In fact, the AU summit of Heads of States and Governments which took place in Maputo, Mozambique in July 2003 endorsed the African Traditional Medicine Day and WHO instituted 31 August for the commemoration. Even as far back as 31st of August, 2009, the World Health Organisation Ethiopia Country Office hosted the celebration of the Fifth African Traditional Medicine Day with a half-day panel discussion and exhibition of products of research on traditional medicine at the Conference Hall of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Furthermore, in 1996, the WHO published (WHO Policy and Activities in the Field of Traditional Medicine) that in China, the ratio of medical doctors to the population stood at 1:20,000 compared with traditional practitioners ratio of 1:2000, and in Swaziland, these figures are 1:10,000 and 1:100 respectively. These are pointers to the fact that Africa should look in the direction of traditional medicine for home grown solutions to health care.

Therefore, the so-called creation of a traditional medicine department in the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) to champion researches into the discovery and application of traditional medicine for health care is a needless duplication of efforts, as there already exists a parastatal of FMoH that can handle that assignment. The parastatal is the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), which was established to carry out R&D of drugs, biological products and pharmaceutical raw materials based on indigenous resources, with its Board of Governors having representatives from the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturer’s Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN), Traditional Medicine Practitioners, FMH and Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST). What is needed is for FMoH to re-energise it instead of creating a new department.

Notwithstanding, it is heart-warming that the search for malaria cure is the first focal area in the new drive for the use of traditional medicine in Nigeria, because nine out of 10 persons are at risk while about 66 per cent of all clinical attendance is due to malaria. So, it is obvious that it is relevant to the majority of Nigerians. Discovering traditional cure for malaria is possible because in Ethiopia and Western Kenya, studies have shown that the use of mosquito repellent plants in and around residential areas, which also beautify the environment and freshen the airs control malaria Nigeria can learn from these countries. Again some proponents of traditional medicine believe that it is a natural course that where a disease is prevalent, there is a traditional cure.

Furthermore, most Nigerians, especially those living in rural communities do not have access to orthodox medicine and it is estimated that about 75 per cent of the populace still prefer to solve their health problems consulting traditional healers and that many rural communities have great faith in traditional medicine.

While it is important that government allocates the resources needed for the search for malaria cure, the leadership of this initiative should ensure that the money budgeted is used judiciously. Furthermore, since anecdotal evidence suggests that there are tradition medications for malaria and no one is reinventing the wheel, FMoH and NIPRD should undertake scientific research to generate evidences for the safety, efficacy and quality of the traditional medicinal products and practices, particularly those on malaria. This department can also work with states that have established traditional medicine boards because what is needed now is stepping up action in the area of “research and development” to modernise and standardise them; and working with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and PMG-MAN for good manufacturing practices in order to ensure stable and well-preserved products, uniform and accurate dosage and properly-labelled herbal medicines. Herbalists should also be encouraged to register their proven and efficacious standardised herbal preparations with NAFDAC, while NAFDAC should ensure that the medical products discovered undergo rigorous scientific analysis/clinical test before being endorsed for use.

Finally, there is also the need for collaboration among relevant institutions for the seamless integration of traditional medicine proven to be safe and effective into the health system; development of regulation and guidelines for the control of traditional medicines, training of technical personnel working in research, controlling activities and the conservation of medicinal plants, especially those facing extinction due to over-use, bush burning, drought and urban development.


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