Herbal medicine to the rescue

Friday March 23 2012


Herbal medicine will not mend your love-life. It will neither bring back a long-lost loved one nor will it ward off bad luck.

What it will do, however, is to treat, and even cure, life threatening diseases such as cancer, diabetes and various heart conditions.

For the first time, a major academic institution, the University of Nairobi, has publicly endorsed herbal medicine as an important arm of health care in the country, though with a caveat.

“It (herbal medicine) won’t bring back a deserting partner nor will it help win a court case. These are just white lies that should not be tolerated,” says Prof Julius Wanjohi Mwangi of the UoN.

The university collected data at Neem Foundation herbal clinic in Nairobi for five years until 2010.

The data showed that about 55,000 people were treated there, out of which 6,000 had heart conditions and about 2,000 came for cancer treatment.

At a similar facility in Mombasa, 3630 patients were treated in one year. A majority had diabetes.

The leaning towards herbal medicine, says Prof Mwangi, is no longer just a rural activity. Its influence is more significant in urban Kenya.

“The notion that the use of herbal medicine is a sign of poverty and ignorance is not right,” he says, citing last year’s rush to Loliondo in Tanzania, where top-of-the-range off-road cars competed for space while other patients arrived by helicopter for a dose of an alleged wonder drug.

Prof Mwangi, a professor of pharmacognosy (the study of medicine derived from natural sources), says he first came into contact with herbal treatment when in primary school in Kirinyaga.

Then, his teachers would make them spread a particular weed on the classroom floors to protect fellow pupils from jiggers.

Recently, the University of Nairobi held its first public lecture on herbal medicines and whether they, indeed, work.

Just like any other industry, there are some people who are out to spoil the herbal medicine name, said Prof Mwangi and other panellists.

The professor cited several successful cases observed by the university’s Department of Pharmacy over the years, which “in our collective thinking was not a case of fluke but proof of the therapeutic power of herbal medicines.”

The researchers told of a 17-year-old girl who had a severe allergy to beans. She had tried many medicines including oils, antibiotics and even steroids to cure her condition. “She was put on herbal medicine containing 15 items and the allergy went away in three weeks.” The girl, Grace Nyamburu, now aged 24 and already graduated from college, developed a peculiar skin condition when in Form Two “She would develop huge watery bumps on her face for no apparent reason,” her mother, a school teacher, says. After some time, the mother realised that every time they ate githeri – maize boiled together with beans – the problem would occur. “We dropped the meal whenever she was home. In boarding school, however, she was put on antibiotics.” The doctor attending to her confessed that he did not know what he was treating.

Her mother says the problem worsened when she reached Form Four. “She started reacting even to other foods, as long as they had been cooked in the same sufuria that had been used to prepare beans,” says Prof Mwangi.

Recovery from allergy
After consultations, including with Prof Mwangi, Grace was put on a 21-day course of a herbal preparation.

“I remember I had to visit the school every day to prepare her medicine. Thanks to the herbs, the problem is now gone and my daughter can enjoy eating her beans,” says the mother.

Ms Fatuma Ismael Abdi, a second-hand clothes trader in Eldoret, narrates how herbs saved her life six years ago.
In 2006, she says, she was diagnosed with liver cancer and advised to seek an operation in India.
“The doctors told me that I would need an operation to solve the problem. If I was to be operated, I decided it would have to be done here in Kenya.

“I proceeded to Eldoret’s Medihill Hospital where tests established that indeed I had cancer of the liver,” says Ms Abdi.

After a month’s stay at the hospital, and after all vital tests had been done, Ms Abdi changed her mind and opted to “go and die at home.” “I told my family to take me home for my last days. My body was swollen and my skin turned coal black. But just on the nick of time, a friend advised me to try herbal medicine,” said the mother of one. The friend took her to Neem Foundation herbal clinic, where she was put on herbal medicine.
“Within three months, I was up and about and tests showed the cancer rescinding,” said Ms Abdi. Today, six years later, Ms Abdi says, she is well and a total disciple of herbal medicine. “We also recorded the case of an 83-year-old woman who had been bedridden with liver cancer” says Prof Mwangi. “She had been discharged from hospital to be cared for at home but after taking herbal medicine for about two months she was able to walk. She lived for six more years before dying.”

Mr Robinson Theuri presented a case that puzzled the researchers. Mr Theuri, 62, last week told of years of excruciating pain in the lower back which almost killed him in the 2008.“At night my wife had to help me turn on the other side or get out of bed and I could hardly do any work,” he told Saturday Nation.

The patient, Prof Mwangi, told the panel, had a slipped disc in the lower back which could be a very painful experience that sometimes requires surgery. “At the time I could not afford medical bills because I could not work,” he says. He was introduced to the university’s Mitishamba Clinic, where he was put on a two-month herbal therapy. The pain has since gone away, he says. But this is the paradox, according to Prof Mwangi.

“Our experience with patients shows the pain goes away but we are yet to get a clear understanding of the process which removes the problem. Science will have to answer this question.” The panellists also told of a 70-year-old man who had prostate cancer that had spread to the bone marrow. Because of his advanced age, he could not be put on chemotherapy or radiotherapy and hence was discharged from hospital.

At home, the case documented by the university shows, he turned to herbal medicine and he has been healthy for the last five years. Mention of prostate brings into focus the overexploited tree called kiburabura, mwiritsa, tenduet, ol-Koijuka, muiri in local languages, or as Prunus Africana, the red stinkwood or African cherry.

Its bark is exported to Europe for the manufacture of medicine. The bark’s chemical composition has been analysed and well documented at the UoN. In the local market there are many products in the form of sachets, powders and even capsules derived from the tree and indicated for the treatment of prostate.

However some of this, as explained by Prof Mwangi, may be misleading. Popular belief is that the extract from Prunus Africana is used in the treatment of prostate cancer. However, to put the record straight, Prof Mwangi says, it is actually used to treat what is commonly called the old man’s disease. When some men get older, the prostate gland becomes enlarged, making urination difficult.

This condition, which is non-cancerous and called Prostate Hyperplasia (BPH), is the one treated by the Prunus extract. “This is the kind of misleading information that we want to rectify by demanding that all herbal medicines, attendant studies and clinical trials be lodged with us,” says chief pharmacist Kipkerich Koskei. In an earlier interview, Mr Geoffrey Rukunga, the head of traditional medicine at Kemri, said it was imperative for traditional medicine to be validated for efficacy, safety and quality.

Mr Rukunga said the research centre was involved in validating numerous herbal medicines for herbalists who provided samples. “In that way, you can tell which traditional medicine works. However, we do no surveillance, so we may not be able to know what happens to those who take the herbs that have not gone through the validation process,” Mr Rukunga said.

Herbalist Judah Mwongo however says the process of certifying herbal medicine was expensive and punitive and suggests it be subsidised by the government.

Public Health director Shahnaz Sheriff says herbal medicine is not new in Kenya and many people had faith in it. The government does not discourage it, but there is need for the industry, which is huge, to be regulated.

“What we need in the country is the regulation of the medicine, so that we can know which one works and which does not work and their efficacy also, because herbal medicine to some is the first line treatment,” said Dr Sheriff.

While many people in Kenya have faith in herbal medicine, Dr Sheriff does not recommend it for the treatment of some diseases such as tuberculosis. But the university differs. It says doing all the necessary studies to develop a single medicine is too expensive and time consuming. It estimates that to develop such a conventional medicine would take between 10 to 17 years at an estimated cost of between $200 million (Sh16.8 billion) to over $2 billion (Sh168 billion). “But Kenyans are not waiting for all the clinical evidence to be supplied before trying this branch of medicine. They say it is helping them anyway,” says Prof Mwangi, who suggests going the Chinese way.

The Chinese way is to use both law and high technology. In some cases you are only required to show evidence that the medicine works and contains active ingredients. Such evidence was presented last year by researchers from the Kemri and Kenya Neem Foundation Herbal Clinic when they published a list of 22 tree and shrub species with high potential for the development of malaria medicines.

The researchers, led by Dr Najma Dharani, said that apart from interrogating information from practitioners and fellow scientists, the plants’ chemical content had been thoroughly analysed and found to be effective.

It is this kind of research that has turned the growing of a previously little-known weed from China, Artemisia Annua, also known as Sweet Annie, into a huge global success, turning around the fortunes of peasant farmers and making billions for the pharmaceutical industry while saving many lives.

The Chinese wormwood or Artemisia Annua now provides the world with the main ingredient for making an effective first-line malaria medicine.

While this short shrub is a native of China, since 2005 it has been introduced for cultivation in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Its cultivation in Kenya, in parts of the Rift Valley and Central Province, and marketing is supported by the East African Botanicals Limited, located at the Export Processing Zone at Athi River. It is estimated that about 1,000 hectares are under the crop in the region.

By Austine on 09 November 2017