Sylvia Arthur investigates Africa’s search for an herbal AIDS cure for the millions of sufferers afflicted with the disease but too poor to afford life-prolonging Western drugs
Belief in the power of herbal and traditional medicine to cure all manner of illnesses has long been the faith of many Africans who’ve had little choice but to trust in the efficacy. In countries where over 70 per cent of the population is dependent on local preparations for the remedy of everything from the common cold to life-threatening diseases, the production of herbal medicine is a source of livelihood for a vast number of people. Although these cheap and cheerful drugs, most of which are unregulated by the national Food and Drugs Boards, are the only medicines some people have access to, their usefulness remains largely unproven.
But since the South African government won a landmark case against multinational pharmaceutical companies to produce generic HIV/AIDS drugs almost a decade ago, many African governments have poured huge resources in to developing the home-grown herbal sector as a legitimate alternative to orthodox medicine.
With HIV/AIDS a prevalent killer in Africa, the management of the deadly disease is the motivation behind a concerted effort to standardize an accessible and affordable alternative sector. The difference between the two schools of medicinal thought regarding the treatment of AIDS is clear-cut. While orthodox scientists are primarily concerned with honing drugs for the control of the virus, herbalists and traditional medicine practitioners are concentrating on the search for the so-far elusive cure the world is desperately waiting for.
And in developing countries, where overstretched health budgets often can’t extend to costly pharmaceutical imports, the commitment to the development of the herbal industry and, in particular, a herbal cure for AIDS, is seen as socially and economically fundamental to the region’s overall prospects.
Many have claimed to have discovered the cure for the disease that is crippling the continent and the race is on to patent the drugs before Westerners, who know the efficacy of the medications, do so themselves.
So, is the solution to Africa’s numerous social and economic problems to be found literally growing in its own backyard?
The potential for progress is certainly enormous. However, Dr Felix Konotey-Ahulu, a consultant physician and distinguished professor of human genetics at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, cautions that, if herbalists are not taken seriously domestically, the continent will not reap the benefits of any possible breakthrough. “If herbalists are not duly recognized and the necessary support not given to them to operate, foreign nationals who know the efficacy of traditional medicine will patent the medicines as their own,” warns Konotey-Ahulu. He insists that the best way to ensure good practice in the industry is to place a government-appointed herbalist to oversee operations. “They know their work best, their needs and what is required to champion their rights.”
Dr Prince Kakari, founder of the Gye Nyame Herbal Clinic and Maternity Home, says he sees about six HIV cases a week at his small treatment centre in the city of Kumasi. Before the patients come to him for treatment, they’re already aware that they’re carrying the HIV virus. Kakari himself doesn’t have any means of testing those who come to him for care, but he claims to be able to deduce from the symptoms displayed whether or not a person is HIV positive. He says that, although it’s the symptoms of the disease he’s trying to cure, he’ll also prescribe his patients medication to treat the virus itself.
He is part of a group of orthodox and herbal doctors working together to develop an AIDS drug. He admits that herbalists alone can’t find a solution but, he says, neither can the orthodox sector. The reason behind their joining forces is to create a legitimate working group.
Asked whether he believes in claims from other African countries to have discovered the HIV/AIDS remedy, Dr Kakari is quick to answer in the affirmative.
“Oh, yes, I believe them. Even here in Ghana, I’m not saying that we don’t have a medicine [cure] for AIDS. We have. But before you can say, “I’ve got it”, it’s not easy. That’s why we’ve formed a collective of herbalists, doctors, nurses and pharmacists. We’ve got together and we’re working on it so that we can reach a certain level. Then the government will take notice of what we’re doing and people will hear about us. Because if you’re one person working alone on an AIDS drug here in Ghana, people will not believe you,” concedes Kakari.
Previous Ghanaian governments have long shown confidence in the herbal sector. The Traditional and Alternative Medicine Directorate, a division within the Ministry of Health established under the Traditional Medicine Practice Act in 1991, is responsible for regulating the practices of the huge number of herbalists operating throughout the country. The idea was to establish a collaborative relationship that will eventually integrate herbal medicine in to conventional medical procedures so that, in case where conventional medicine is unable to facilitate recovery, a patient may be referred to a herbalist for consultation and vice versa.
The herbal medicine sector may be the last hope for the continent’s dying. Whether or not it can cure Africa’s social and economic ills in one prescribed dose remains to be seen. “Here we have a problem,” Dr Kakari rues. “The people who come to us think we just go to the bush and pick the leaves, that we don’t pay for it because it doesn’t come from abroad. So, if the person comes [to me for treatment] and afterwards he feels better, when the time comes for him to pay, he’s crying. So we need a lot of help.
“The government needs to help us export herbal medicine to get foreign exchange and help the economy. We started the work a long time ago. By now we should be at a high level, with laboratory equipment and other things. But, unfortunately, that’s not the situation we find ourselves in.”