Africa Boosts Traditional Cures

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Traditional medicine has more followers than Western medicine in Zimbabwe and Africa and increasingly in North America and Europe there is a booming market for indigenous African medicines with powerful western pharmaceutical giants tapping into this vast traditional medicine body.

(Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe…his country is promoting benefits of traditional medicine).

Zimbabwe has great potential to create livelihoods through the sustainable use of biological resources and indigenous knowledge systems that can significantly contribute to national development.

Last week, the country joined the rest of the continent in commemorating the fourth African Traditional Medicine Day. The celebrations are held every year on August 31. Zimbabwe and Africa are increasingly becoming aware that their own biological resources are vital assets that can spur national development if their exploitation is done in a sustainable manner and through the tapping of indigenous knowledge systems.

But most development experts noted with concern the continuing marginalization of traditional medicine practice and indigenous knowledge systems, indigenous foods with high nutritional, medicinal and economic value, despite the signing of a string of international protocols on biological resources and traditional knowledge systems. The lure of western conventional medicines and other approaches is still too strong and experts say African countries must work continually to raise the profile of traditional medicines and other indigenous knowledge practices so that these well adapted systems do not die or become extinct.

Traditional medicine has more followers than Western medicine in Zimbabwe and Africa and increasingly in North America and Europe there is a booming market for indigenous African medicines with powerful western pharmaceutical giants tapping into this vast traditional medicine body. World Health Organization experts say the practice of traditional medicine represents a major alternative approach in finding a solution to the diseases that affect many people across the continent.

It is encouraging that a number of countries on the continent are working flat out to examine and expand ways of incorporating the services of healers with bio-medicine in an attempt to deliver care to the majority of the people who have limited access to modern health care. "A significant proportion of people depend on traditional medicine," says Andrew Mushita, the director of Community Technology Development Trust. "The challenge is that how do we systematically integrate traditional medicine with the formal health care system.�
Since time immemorial, he says, people in Zimbabwe and Africa have used traditional medicines and traditional knowledge for their survival. "The challenge is how to re-package this and promote it for easy accessibility by the majority of people," says Mushita whose organization has documented indigenous foods, medicine and knowledge systems in the country.

He says there is need to strengthen the existing institutional structures of traditional medicine and research as well as promoting the use of registers and databases to document and protect traditional knowledge systems. There is a vast world of untapped traditional medicine and knowledge system that if well managed and protected can make a difference in the lives of people in Zimbabwe and Africa.
For years, herbs from trees and shrubs, roots, leaves, flowers and bark have been used to cure a whole range of ailments through the linkage of spirituality and other traditional African religion practices. At least 75 percent of all Western medicines and traditional medicines are plant based while 25 percent use synthetic materials.

Local knowledge has been used extensively for medicinal plants for human and animal health care, selection and breeding of livestock to suit the local environment and the development and preservation of local seed varieties. Traditional methods of storing grain included the use of eucalyptus leaves, ash and herbs such as Zumbani and this has limited side effects as compared to the use of expensive chemicals in the preservation of grain these days. Local agricultural engineers are exploring ways of tapping into indigenous knowledge systems to come up with improved approaches for grain storage that are less harmful to humans.

In Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the region, the baobab tree has served many purposes including the application of its leaves as a soothing cream and bark for the treatment of malaria and other diseases. This has been used for many centuries by African communities in the treatment of diseases. Hoodia, an appetite suppressant found in the entire southern African region was developed using traditional knowledge of the San people and other communities strewn across the region.

In Kumasi, Ghana, a plant known as the "climbing dayflower" and African tulip tree used for centuries by the Asante people has proven useful in wound healing due to antioxidant and antimicrobial actions, according to a recent study published in the August issue of Phytotherapy Research (2006). Researchers from Kwame University of Science and Technology tested methanol extracts of Commelina diffusa (dayflower) and Spathodea campanulata bark, findings both showed selective antifungal activity against Trichophyton species--which commonly causes hair, skin and nail infections. The scientists concluded that the use of these plants in wound healing was proving to be effective showing that with more investment in research into traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge systems, African countries can find some solutions into some of their pressing problems.

"There is a need to establish a centre for traditional medicine research and development to make meaningful use of these genetic resources," says Mushita. "The country has to have a budget to promote these medicines. There is enormous comparative advantage in Africa where there is a vast base of biological resources. "There are a lot of economic benefits that can be derived in terms of exports in drugs. There is a whole range of indigenous knowledge systems in agriculture, traditional medicine and water management that can be researched on to improve the living standards of the people in Africa."

He says there is need to revisit these knowledge systems and do some kind of empirical research and to re-package this technology for wider distribution on the continent for development purposes. "These are cost effective and locally adaptable," he says. Worldwide there is a growing demand for sex enhancement drugs which Indian and Chinese producers are cashing in on as well as Western pharmaceuticals that are producing drugs such as Viagra. There is a big scope for enhancing herbs in Zimbabwe and Africa to penetrate this multi-billion dollar industry if more efforts are made to research on this traditional knowledge, to repackage and brand the products using competitive techniques as well as employing sound legislation which recognizes and protects the rights of communities to share the benefits of these resources. The laws must also be adopted and implemented to protect indigenous knowledge systems and practices to curb biopiracy by multinationals and other individuals from rich and powerful countries.

The World Trade Organization’s Treaty on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires all countries to protect their own genetic resources either by patents or sui generis legislation or a combination of both. But governments in developing countries have weak structures and lack resources to protect their genetic wealth and hence are open to exploitation by giant pharmaceutical companies from rich countries.

Numerous cases have been reported of some multinationals that are stealing genetic material from unprotected developing countries and patenting the resultant product as their own. Experts say developing countries need to enact legislation that incorporates the framework of current agreements and negotiations –TRIPS along with the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty for the Protection of Plant Genetic Resources to safeguard their resources.

They say because international law permits the exploitation and patenting of the earth's unprotected biological resources, countries without laws governing access and use to these resources will continue to be bled of their genetic heritage as these will no longer belong to them once there are stolen. Herbs whose medicinal properties were kept secret in traditional African communities as well as other indigenous knowledge are increasingly being poached by outsiders without regard for local communities who have for ages been the custodians of that knowledge.

"In the past we willingly told outsiders about our medicines, but fortunately we never divulged the full contents of the various herbal medicines that we dispense to our patients," Zvomuya Gwindi, a traditional healer was quoted in a community technology journal.
"Africa is a continent very well endowed with medicinal plants and its very easy for a researcher to sneak in and get names of all the trees used in an HIV/Aids cocktail and source the plants from elsewhere on the continent and take the herbs to their laboratories without us getting anything," he says.

The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha) has a membership of about 55 000 traditional healers who have access to more than 500 different types of medicinal plants. In South Africa, it is estimated that there are 300 000 traditional practitioners in the industry which has an annual turnover of more than 250 million Rands. In Africa, south of the Sahara, the ratio of traditional healers to the population is about 1:500 in contrast to the doctor to population ratio of 1:40, 000 on average. Raising awareness on the existing rules and regulations governing the practice of traditional medicine and the protection of biological resources will help to revolutionize traditional medical systems and the use of local knowledge.

Addressing the problems of deforestation, veldfires, pollution of water resources, the extraction of minerals, overgrazing, over-exploitation of plant resources without planting new ones, non-documentation of indigenous knowledge systems and poor investment in research can help the country's development process. The joining of traditional and modern medical practice, the lack of recognition and respect for traditional medical practitioners, access and protection traditional medicine plants, strengthening legislation and monitoring of genetic resources still remain a major challenge too.

"If people burn trees and other plants indiscriminately, they are also burning the practice of traditional medicine," says one traditional healer. Prof. Claude Mararike says there is need to promote traditional medicine and collaboration within the region as well as other countries such as China and India. African medicine and traditional systems have survived negative Eurocentric stereotypes that sought to put Western medical systems above them. And, promoting research, the sustainable use and protection of genetic resources as well as traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge systems will no doubt add the African body of knowledge to the world repertory of inventions and discoveries.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’ Southern Africa Correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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