Rhodes University: The urgency and necessity of African home-grown medical initiatives

On Friday, 11 June 2021, the Rhodes University African Studies Centre hosted a two-session panel colloquium titled “COVID-19 in Retrospect: Drug R&D and Traditional Medicine in Africa”.

The virtual event was funded by The Open Society of Southern Africa (OSISA) and moderated by Dr. Adedamola Adetiba (African Studies Centre, Rhodes University, RSA). The panellists assessed the resilience of traditional medicine in the contemporary global health framework. They created a platform to discuss alternative pathways of authenticating African herbs and knowledge claims without compromising population safety.

The panellists for the colloquium were Professor David Ramanitrahasimbola, who is the Head of the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar; Dr Rebecca Marsland, Senior Lecturer of Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, United Kingdom; and Reverend Father Anselm Adodo, the Founder of Pax Herbal Clinic and Research Laboratories and the Africa Centre for Integral Research and Development (OFIRDI), Ewu-Esan, Nigeria.

What emerged from the panel is that African countries are in dire need of improved health infrastructure, not only to curb COVID-19, but also to address current and future health issues in the continent. African countries rely more on Pharmacare imports than their indigenous and local productions.

Most African countries have been receiving COVID-19 vaccine doses under the COVAX scheme, and these have been sourced from outside the continent. COVAX is a global alliance backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other multilateral bodies aiming to bring together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, the private sector, civil society and philanthropy, to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. With the rise in covid-19 cases in India, India, one of the suppliers to Africa halted vaccine exports to meet its pressing domestic demand.

Professor David Ramanitrahasimbola gave a brief background of how COVID-19 hit Madagascar and the government’s preparedness to acquire vaccines. He detailed how traditionally, the Malagasy people tended to use essential oil inhalation and plant-based diets to boost their immune system to fight the virus. Madagascar attracted much negative attention in April 2021, when the nation suggested using a local plant, Artemisia annua, to combat coronavirus. On the other hand, WHO recognises that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits, and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an essential role in providing care to populations. He argues that traditional and medicinal plants like Artemisia annua must be considered as possible remedies which must be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects. Unfortunately, the testing processes were too demanding because of the costly and staged nature of the testing process and how the process undermines any raw herbal remedies. According to WHO, Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world.

Reverend Father Anselm Adodo first highlighted that there were still some challenges in terms of nomenclature. He preferred to refer to use the term ‘herbal medicine’ instead of traditional medicine as the later carried notions of primitivism and associated such medicine with witchcraft and other dark powers. This tended to undermine scientific research on such medicine.

Further, Father Adodo pointed out that there is a considerable need to uphold the African Indigenous Knowledge System (AIKS), as a total system of knowledge and practices, whether explicit or implicit, used in the management of socioeconomic, ecological and spiritual facets of life that can be communicated through numerous methods such as orally among members of the community and to the future generations through, stories, songs, among others.

“In Africa, when we talk about traditional medicine, we are quick to assume that witchcraft is involved,” he said. Reverend Adodo argued that Africans need to acknowledge and use their own medicine rather than waiting for Eurocentric scientists to take all the credits for discovering medicines and treatments in Africa. Just like the WHO recommendations, Rev Adodo emphasised that even if therapies and treatments are derived from natural products, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical. He argued that traditional medicines also go through scientific herbal preparations by subjecting the herbal materials to treatments such as extraction, distillation, concentration, fermentation, or other physicochemical or biological methods. The resulting preparations include extracts, decoctions and tinctures.

Concerning the roles of different COVID-19 vaccines, Rev Adodo reiterated that vaccines are not a cure for the virus, but they help the body prepare to fight against the virus. In general, vaccines contain weakened or inactive parts of a particular virus that triggers an immune response within the body. This weakened version will not cause the disease in the person receiving the vaccine, but it will prompt their immune system to respond.

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