How African traditional medicine can provide cure for COVID-19, by experts
As part of activities to mark the African Traditional Medicine Day (ATMD) August 31, 2020, stakeholders have examined the progress in the past 20 years towards raising the prominence of traditional medicine in national health systems.
Director-General, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Prof. Mojisola Christianah Adeyeye, at an online interactive session with journalists said although herbal medicine may be able to cure COVID-19, there is no herbal cure yet for the virus.
Adeyeye said: “When it comes to herbal medicine you cannot say this medicine can cure until you do clinical trials. You can only change the recommendation on the product to provide relief for this, or management of that. You cannot cure COVID-19 when you don’t do antiviral testing. You have to go to clinical trials and use so many people. Our herbal medicine may be able to cure COVID-19 but it depends on the stage.
“…There is no herbal cure yet for COVID-19. There are some companies that submitted applications for clinical trials to prove that their drugs work. We are reviewing their application as we speak.”
The pharmacist further explained: “If it is not prepared well herbal medicine can kill fast. In March 2019 we started a committee on herbal medicine. Nigerian researchers have done a lot of studies on herbal medicine but translation into the finished products has been impeded. We advise herbalists that if they have a product that they know that works, they can have a researcher to work on it after contractual agreement. But there is distrust between herbalists and researchers. I brought the two parties together under one roof to rub minds. We started working on confidential agreement.
“The herbalists said unless NAFDAC is midwifing it they would not be part of it. We brought patent attorneys to come and educate them. Our traditional medicine healers and researchers have become energized. We started encouraging our practitioners to submit their products if they think it can alleviate symptoms of COVID-19. We have over 40 applications and we have reviewed our process for herbal medicines from months to three weeks. We have also reviewed the approval process for sanitisers to just 10 days. We now do e-registration. We got the first product approved about a month ago.”
The pharmacist added: “COVID-19 woke us up from our coma as a country especially in the health sector. The health sector was neglected for decades. Now the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is supporting pharmaceutical industries. Many companies have got billions of naira to upgrade their facilities. In terms of funding for herbal medicine, the CBN just launched a scheme to make it viable.
“…The CBN’s offer for herbal medicine practitioners ends October 30, 2019. Many researchers have submitted request for funds to do research on COVID-19.”
On the claims of Prof. Maurice Iwu to have found natural products that could provide ‘cure’ for COVID-19, the NAFDAC DG said: “Prof. Maurice Iwu is my friend. He was there when we launched the committee on herbal medicine last year. He was at the first and second meeting in September. At the beginning of the pandemic I heard he has done something. We met late March or early April and I told him, ‘why don’t you submit to us’. He said he has done the clinical trials abroad, I don’t doubt him. He has submitted his product to us. It is one of the 40 applications we have with us. We have to take it first through safety toxicology test. Once those are met we can now say the product has been listed. Prof. Iwu is a very seasoned researcher and I wont be surprised if something positive comes out but it has to pass through tests. Nigeria has a lot of potential in herbal medicine. The renaissance of herbal medicine is here and it is going to benefit our people.”
Can traditional medicine provide solutions to COVID-19? Director, Pax Herbals Centre in Ewu, Edo State, Anselm Adodo, told The Guardian: “Yes. I live in a rural community in Edo State. I see sick people every day. I have seen many people who were officially diagnosed with COVID-19. So, I am answering your question from that background.”
On the relevance of ATM towards universal health coverage (UHC), Adodo, said: “ATM has been universally acknowledged as an essential part of primary health care. Primary health care is, in turn, the backbone of universal health coverage. The relevance of ATM to UHC is, therefore, officially recognized and acknowledged.
“For me, the critical question is: why have African governments not key into ATM as a part of the official health care system in Africa? The question is critical when viewed from the background that many of the policymakers in Nigeria today, including our health care professionals, were attended to by traditional birth attendants. Many others have taken herbal medicines at one time or the other, or were children of traditional healers, or have family members or were traditional healers.
“Research upon research has come up with the same conclusion, namely, that the current imported, cure-oriented health system operational in Nigeria and Most African countries has not and may never meet the health needs of the people. ATM offers an efficient and widely accepted alternative to the current system, and both should complement each other towards attaining universal health coverage in Africa.”
On recommendations on how best to improve traditional medicine practice in Nigeria, Adodo, said: “I must say that many traditional medicine practitioners in Nigeria often act selfishly and often put monetary gain above all other considerations. Granted that most of us human beings are selfish and self-centered, we also can rise above primordial selfish interests to work for the common good. We should therefore strive to put our own house in order rather than shifting all the blames on the government.
“In fact, in 2006, during the Obasanjo presidency, the federal government formed the association of Traditional medicine practitioners into a national body, called the National Association of Nigerian Traditional Medicine Practitioners (NANTMP). The executive members were even given an office at the herbal medicine unit of the federal ministry of health in Abuja. Since then, in-fighting, fueled by greed, nepotism, nativism, and narrow mindedness has hindered the association from achieving its goal.
“I, therefore, recommend that this body be re-organized and empowered to effectively function as a national body. Competent and genuinely passionate individuals should be appointed as executives.”
Adodo said just as there is a department of traditional herbal medicine at the federal ministry of health in Abuja; every state in Nigeria should also have the same. This, he said, will help to properly coordinate the incorporation of ATM into national health care systems.
“Every state should, in turn, ensure that there is a unit for ATM in every local government. This is very important as the rural communities are often lacking in official health care coverage. The government should commit itself to properly funding ATM in terms of administration, research, drug discovery and organization,” he said.
Adodo said the way forward is for traditional medicine practitioners to form a stronger pressure group to lobby the government to do their duties. “We must acknowledge the fact that the government has many things drawing their attention, while many government officials also have their own personal hidden agenda. We just need to recognise these facts,” he said.
Adodo, who is a scientific researcher and a Catholic monk, said since the National health act which was signed into law by the then President Jonathan in 2014 officially recognized ATM as part of the national health care system, stakeholders need to draw public opinions to this document and ensure that it is widely circulated.
He said one of the most radical decisions in the Act is the establishment of the Basic Healthcare Provision Fund (BHPF), which would be financed from the first line charge of not less than one per cent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the federation and other sources. Adodo said this prescribes a basic healthcare package every Nigerian would be entitled to. “This fund would be disbursed through the National/state/LGAs Primary Healthcare development agencies, the National Health Insurance Scheme, provision of essential drugs, maintenance of healthcare infrastructure, and development of human resources for health and subsidies for emergency medical treatments. Most Nigerians are not even aware of this Act. I think it our duty to put pressure to respect this provision in the Act,” he said.
Indeed, according to the WHO, traditional medicine has been used for centuries to improve well being and it continues to play a central role in health care. It draws on the continent’s rich and unique biodiversity of aromatic and medicinal plants. It is also a promising industry that African countries can do more to export internationally.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, African traditional medicine took the spotlight, starting with a widespread discussion of COVID-organics from Madagascar as a potential remedy for the virus.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, in a statement, to mark the ATMD 2020 said action has accelerated to study the COVID-organics remedy, with a view to scaling-up production if it is shown to be effective.
Moeti said the WHO and Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) have supported this process through the development of a master protocol for clinical trials of traditional medicines for COVID-19 and the establishment of a regional Expert Advisory Committee bringing together experts from across the continent to oversee the study of COVID-organics and other potential remedies.
Moeti said these most recent steps build on two decades of action to raise the profile of African traditional medicine, and would like to share some of the tremendous progress that has been made.
She said forty countries now have traditional medicine policies, up from eight countries in 2000, and many have integrated traditional medicine in their national health policies and established regulatory frameworks for traditional medicine practitioners.
Moeti further explained: “Academic institutions in 24 countries now offer traditional medicine courses to the pharmacy and medical students. In 17 countries, referral pathways are established between traditional and conventional health practitioners, and eight countries are strengthening the integrated delivery of conventional and traditional medicine services. In Ghana, the availability of integrated services has doubled from 19 facilities offering these services in 2012 to 40 in 2020.
“Ghana, Mali and South Africa have established partial health insurance coverage for traditional medicine products and services thus protecting people from financial hardship in line with action towards universal health coverage.
“There are now more than 34 research institutes dedicated to African traditional medicines. In 15 countries public funding is allocated on a regular basis to traditional medicine research. Almost 90 domestic marketing authorizations have been issued for herbal medicines and over 40 such medicines are included in national essential medicines lists. Large-scale cultivation of medicinal plants is also increasing, along with local production of herbal medicines.”
Moeti said these achievements show the significant progress that has been made in the regulation and promotion of African traditional medicine. To build on this, she said, more data is needed on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional herbal preparations, as well as stronger enforcement of regulatory frameworks and better platforms to share and safeguard traditional medicine knowledge for future generations. Moeti, however, said Africa’s biodiversity, and so too traditional medicine, is also under threat from climate change and mitigation measures are needed.
In recognition of the need for further action, she called for the Third Decade of African Traditional Medicine. This, she said, will help to ensure African traditional medicine is exploited to its full potential.
Moeti called on governments, academic and research institutions, practitioners, and the private sector to strengthen collaboration. By working together, she said, stakeholders can improve access to quality traditional medicines delivered by health-care teams integrated into national health systems.
“It is my personal ambition that African traditional medicine be more fully recognised internationally. I assure you of WHO’s commitment to promoting safe and effective traditional medicines for better well-being,” she said.
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