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Translating trado-medicine into clinical practice

By Chukwuma Muanya
01 September 2016   |   4:30 am
Maurice Iwu is a professor of Pharmacognosy and President, Bioresources Development Conservation Programme (BDCP). Iwu in a chat with The Guardian to mark the African Traditional Medicine Day (ATMD) ...


Maurice Iwu is a professor of Pharmacognosy and President, Bioresources Development Conservation Programme (BDCP). Iwu in a chat with The Guardian to mark the African Traditional Medicine Day (ATMD) gave a blue print on how traditional medicine (TM) could be employed to boost the country’s ailing economy. CHUKWUMA MUANYA writes.

Is there a problem with ATM considering the neglect despite its potential?
There is no problem with Traditional Medicine (TM) on its self but the problem is with us, the Africans. We cannot have ATM without the Africans themselves. You talk about the Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) but most people know that CTM is not static that it embodies Chinese cultural norms now translated into medicine. So also is ATM. It is not about ancient history, it is about using our cultural norms to translate into medical realities. So there is nothing per say wrong with ATM, but something is wrong about our understanding of the word. Yes ATM does not fit into the other type of medicine. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had classified them into two types. There is the one practiced in Asian based mainly an understanding of some empirical knowledge of matters. The ATM is very personalistic. It has this norm that each individual is different and things have to be done on that basis. Added to that is the spiritual or religious dimension of ATM. In a world increasingly embracing humanistic principle or philosophy it will be difficult for a medical practice that is deep into religion to be able to survive.

It is believed that governments at all levels are not doing enough; they are just paying lip service to TM? What is your take on this?
It goes down to what I said earlier. It is not about government. Who is government? Government is still we. We are the government. But if somebody while he or she is still in the medical school is taught that ATM has to do with dancing around with feathers and white chalk and all that. He or she comes out from school and over the years become a minister or permanent secretary or director, he or she sees TM as something that you toy with that it is not something to take seriously. So it is not government per say but has more to do with us as a people. We have to go beyond this whole idea of colonial mentality. We are the government, it is our government, and we elected them into office. It is government of the people by the people. We have to take responsibility for own failure as a people.

But don’t you think they have a role to play?
I am not holding brief for government. I am trying to say it is bigger than blaming government. We have failed for not being able to recognize that our future lies on our past. It is this inability to manage and translate our past to the present that is hunting us not only in TM. I am using TM just as a symbol of collective failure.

Nigeria is looking for alternatives sources to oil in boosting our economy. What is the potential of TM in taking Nigeria out of this economic doom?
There are very many dimensions to it. If you like you can call them income streams. The actual practice itself is unique. Our late brother, Prof. Lambo, pioneered this whole issue of the psychiatric care using African traditional method. What he did has nothing to do with the use of herbs but the method itself. That whole sector of medicine in these days people are disconnected with their universe, they need some way of coping. ATM affords you a coping mechanism with the complexity of life itself. That on its own is an income stream if is promoted and people that need proper healing embraces that. The second aspect has to do with a lot of medicinal plants, which our people have researched over the years. That comes into the area of intellectual property (IP). We can be able to harness the IP into viable economic resource. I don’t want to bandy words around because it has been over flogged but the issue there is that there is a missing link that we are not tapping into the potentials of medicinal plants. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) did a case study of our group over 16 years ago and they were able to tell our group and other Africans in this area that it is possible to use TM as an economic tool. How many of our states are encouraging TM as a viable means of tapping the economy? None! Because they do not believe in TM. It is a bigger problem than just the policy. So there is a self-doubt. When somebody does not have the confidence in himself. Even if you send him to the best schools he or she comes back and not sure of him of herself.

Perhaps a bigger aspect of ATM comes in the application of pharmacon, the application of medicinal plants itself. They hardly use poisonous plants. The whole issue of pharmacy is that you have to find the line between poison and pharmaceutical agents or pharmacon. That is drug is a poison that heals if taken in small quantities whereas if you remove yourself from the disease paradyn and think about the health paradigm that you need to strengthen the body. I am not talking about preventive medicine, which Western medicine does but we are talking about the whole issue of health, strengthening the body, and being a healthy person to be able to cope with diseases. This is where the ATM comes in. It comes in with the whole issue of nutrition, it comes in with the whole issue of values, and it comes in with the whole issue of lifestyle. What that tells us is that we have a whole lot of nutritious plant and animals that can be incorporated into healthcare. So modern medicine has no way of dealing with that. If for example if you send somebody to go into health assessment, they will go into disease assessment because it is what modern medicine is all about. It is about coping with diseases not optimizing health.

Then there is the fourth income stream, the functional foods, and the food substances that act not just as food only but also as medicine. It is so big that the last book I did was on that topic “Functional Foods of Africa.” The whole idea is to tell the world that we are not as helpless.

So what is your blueprint on how to develop it?
My blueprint is two ways: one is that we should keep developing the issue of the products, but there have to be a lot of emphasis on the practice. I am encouraged by what I hear is happening in University of Ibadan, that traditional medicine is been incorporated in the curriculum of modern medicine; and also hear some institution are thinking of having a new crop of modern doctors that use herbal medicine as part of their therapy. But they are aspects of traditional medicine that is beyond organic practice and those aspects would take very long time for us to integrate.

Are you also calling for a bachelor’s degree for herbal medicine in our universities?
Yes! It is long over due. The institutions concerned should be able to articulate something for a National Universities Commission (NUC) and other agencies to be able to able to regulate. It is really very long over due, because the way the world is going, more and more people are now using organic substances that one of the slogans we have in our website, which we borrowed from a very renowned American who said that ‘the doctor of the future would not be giving people pills but instead would be giving them herbal medicines to prevent the disease in the first place.’ More and more people appreciate that this is the best way to go.

You just came back from Kigali where you attended a conference organized by the African Union (AU) on how to improve Traditional Medicine. What were the fallouts?
The African Union (AU) recently organized a conference on how to improve TM by developing and harmonizing standards from various countries so that Africa will have a standard. It was a meeting that the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) represented Nigerian interest and the body for the AU is called African Regional Standard Organisation (ARSO).

How about the plans by AU to facilitate the integration of Africa Traditional Medicine into the conventional practice?
It is about standards because without standards even nomenclature you have to standardize it. What do you call African Traditional Medicine (ATM)? What do you mean by phytomedicine? What do you mean by nutraceuticals? So if you develop those standards on ATM you will now be to move forward. The conference was on traditional medicine but how to harmonise standards so that every African country will be able to speak with one voice on what to consider ATM and what it is not. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognizes that our traditional medicine is very unique as different from that of Asia and Latin America.

The World International Property Organization (WIPO) recently published a case study on BDCP as a model organization for the equitable utilization of indigenous biodiversity. What was it all about?
Part of the WIPO report reads: ‘Created by Dr. Maurice Iwu in 1992, BDCP is a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO) in the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Nigeria). Since its establishment, BDCP has collaborated with local, national and international partners in order to support the country’s human and biological resources while developing its traditional knowledge – including traditional medicines.

‘The NGO has pioneered policies and partnerships that support investigations into the often unrealized economic and health restoration potential of traditional medicines. At the same time, BDCP has supported Nigerian scientists while raising the socio-economic profiles of the country’s traditional health practitioners (THPs).

‘BDCP, moreover, has forged imaginative joint ventures between THPs and scientists in Nigeria and international scientists such as Lisa Conte – an entrepreneur who founded Shaman Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Shaman PI) in San Francisco, the state of California, the United States of America (USA). Through its collaboration with Shaman PI, a drug manufacturer established in 1991, the NGO was able to facilitate a benefits-sharing agreement between THPs, Nigerian scientists and the pharmaceutical company.

‘In part due to these partnerships, BDCP developed its capacity and placed the economic future of traditional healers and scientists in Nigeria on a sound path to development. In addition, the NGO is preserving the environment in the country via a number of conservation programmes.’