Encouraging the use of traditional African herbal medicines could prevent some of the one million malarial deaths on the continent, according to specialists attending a conference in Nairobi. Many poor communities, especially in rural settings, cannot afford modern malarial drugs and many people die due to inaccessibility of treatment.
“Malaria kills many people in Africa, both children and adults, despite the availability of free treatment in certain African countries. While it is true many governments in Africa, with development partners, give free paediatric treatment for malaria, many still cannot access this facilities and resort to home treatment,” says Merlin Wilcox of the Research Initiative on Traditional Antimalarial Methods and the University of Oxford.
Some specialists at the ongoing 5th MIM Pan African Malaria Conference in Nairobi said medicines drawn from plants that abound in the continent could be utilised to save many people, especially those in poor settings, from malaria.
BN Prakash, a researcher with the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, based in Bangalore, said Africa could draw on experiences in India where medicinal plants have been used with great success in the control of malaria-related deaths.
“Research in India has shown a 5-10 times reduction in malaria-related deaths among communities who use traditional medicinal plants like Guduchi [tinospore coeditdia], a local medicinal plant found in India,” said Prakash.
Preserving traditional knowledge
Another speaker, Gemma Burford of the Global Initiative for Traditional Systems of Health, said while there had been increased cases of loss of knowledge about traditional medicinal plants, student-led research could be used to preserve knowledge and create a database on these plants.
“When we carried out research involving school children in rural Tanzania about traditional Maasai medicines, we found out that 48 percent of these children already had knowledge about these plants. We used [this knowledge] to create a database for the purposes of preserving the knowledge and these plants too,” said Burford.
“It is important to note that many malarial drugs are still bought from commercial pharmaceutical shops and not many of them are that cheap. Costs also involve how easy or not it is to access these government facilities, especially in Africa where medical facilities are far-flung,” Burford said.
Educating the youth
Speakers at the conference called on African governments to introduce educational programmes that would teach the younger generations about the traditional methods of treating malaria and other diseases plaguing the continent.
“The biggest obstacle to use of traditional medicines is lack of interest from the youth and teaching them about these medicines would be the best way to let them appreciate their values. Evangelical churches and development agencies must also be persuaded to stop fighting traditional African medicine because modernity and tradition can be married to provide a formidable force against malaria,” added Burford.
Effectiveness and dangers
Doumbo Ogobara, director of the Mali Malaria Research and Training Centre, and a lecturer at the University of Bamako, said there should be more research to ensure the effectiveness of traditional medicinal plants in the treatment and management of malaria.
“More research must be directed towards finding out the effectiveness of these traditional medicinal plants and their safety and efficacy because initiatives on using them could be counter-productive if this is not done. More emphasis therefore must be laid on research for plant-based prophylactics for malaria,” said Ogobara.
Mahamadou Sissoko of the Centre called for caution in taking the traditional medicinal route, arguing that many malaria-related deaths have occurred even among communities that have relied heavily on traditional plants for treatment.
“People are dying even in places where there is still widespread use of traditional medicinal plants and unless the efficacy of a traditional plant on malarial treatment can be ascertained through vigorous research, we could have our backs against the wall. Many traditional healers will abuse this and give anything as medicine so long as it is a plant – we must urge caution,” said Sissoko.