Traditional medicine can treat HIV

26 Aug 2007
The other reason is potency. Some African herbs are more efficacious than western medicines. Take vuka vuka, for example.

Some lucky women will attest that even before the advent of Viagra, vuka vuka was already performing aphrodisiac wonders in their husbands. Who knows whether knowledge of vuka vuka led to Pfizer's Viagra?

Herbal medicines are the first line of treatment for 60 percent of African children that catch malaria. And this is not just for the rural dwellers. Even urbanites buy herbal medications to treat flu and colds.

Traditional medicine refers to health practices, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant medicines and spiritual therapies to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses.

In the case of HIV/AIDS, over 4.6 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are in need of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. But only some 1.3 million now receive ARVs.

Against this backdrop of scarcity in the provision of ARVs, many people living with HIV/AIDS now turn to traditional medicine for treatment. Traditional healers deserve our respect ' they have dispensed anti-HIV medications even before the current roll-out of cheap generic ARV drugs by the Global Fund and PEPFAR.

In fact, Africans had already been treating the 'sliming disease' even before the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS. There is a lot of scope for traditional medicine, if only modern medicine can acknowledge its shortcomings.

Since Africa is the birthplace of humankind, Africans are genetically endowed with indigenous knowledge in herbal medications. But there is insatiable hunger in the world for herbal medications and neo-liberal globalisation is feeding Africa's plant resources to multinational pharmaceutical companies that turn our plants into drugs.

There is a growing demand for traditional medicines throughout the developed world. Over 50 percent of Europeans and North Americans have used traditional medicines. In Germany, 90 percent of the people use herbal traditional medicines.

In the USA, over 158 million people have used herbal medicines and according to the USA Commission for Alternative and Complementary medicines, US$17 billion was spent on traditional remedies in the year 2000. So, you will be dead wrong if you think that only Africans use traditional medicines.

In the United Kingdom, annual expenditure on alternative medicine is US$ 230 million. The global market for herbal medicines currently stands at over US$ 60 billion annually and this figure is growing steadily.

But for a long time now, and without the consent of indigenous resource owners, bioprospectors have been combing Africa for unique plants to feed their pharmaceutical industries.

Indeed, Africa and its diverse ecosystems and plant biodiversity continue to be a scene of a silent but persistent 'gold rush' for traditional plant-based remedies.

This exploitation already threatens the survival of plants such as the African potato, Hoodia cactus and the Devil's claw ' stolen out of Africa without any benefits to local communities.

The new scramble for Africa's plant and other natural resources is heralding a new era colonialism ' what we now call biocolonialism- the indigenous peoples' lack of self-determination over resources from their lands due to foreign corporate appropriation, extraction and commodification.

Estimates suggest that annual sales derived from indigenous knowledge and genetic resources are: US$3 billion for the cosmetics and personal care industry, US$20 billion for the botanical medicine sector, and US$75 billion for the pharmaceutical industry.

More than 60 percent of the cancer drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration are of natural origin or are modeled on natural products- most likely from Africa.

Nigeria has launched research into traditional medicine to help earn the country US$ 1 billion over the next ten years.

In fact, the kidnapping of foreign oil workers in the Niger delta of Nigeria is a torch light of a much deeper fight against biocolonialism.

Lessons from Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist executed on 10th November 1995, and protests that have become characteristic of G8 summits, are writings on the wall that global capital is treading on a moral minefield of resistance from local communities that seek ecological and social justice.

Most knowledge of traditional medicines is found in our indigenous knowledge systems whose libraries are to be found in our old grandmothers and grandfathers. The danger is that the death of these old folks marks the death of this knowledge.

But there are few pockets of indigenous knowledge centres and ethnobotany courses in some African Universities, and South Africa has made great strides in bringing indigenous knowledge into mainstream formal education.

In many countries, collaborative initiatives have sprung up between traditional and biomedical health practitioners for HIV prevention, care and treatment.

Recently, it was heartening to see the Zambian Sondashi formula for HIV treatment undergo clinical trials at NEPAD's Southern African Network for Biosciences laboratories in South Africa.

This is the way to go. Africans of all people should have faith in their traditional medicines- this is not the voodoo stuff you see in Nigerian movies.

Kazhila Chinsembu is a molecular biologist at the University of Namibia.

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