'Safeguard traditional medical knowledge'

HARARE - There are no chemically-manufactured drugs in Godfrey Mwerenga’s pharmacy.

However, the small shop in Harare, branded Modern Herbal Drugs and Cosmetics Clinic, looks ordinary — bottles of medicines in shelves and jars of powder all over believed to fight all ailments from headache to cancer.

Mwerenga’s remedies are made exclusively from ground-up local plants, the exact mixture based on knowledge passed down through the generations by traditional healers.

Mwerenga, who is a doctor and herbalist, said more attention should now be put into packaging and safeguarding the traditional knowledge systems in African medicine as a source of alternative healing.

“Statistics don’t lie. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 80 percent of our population relies on traditional medicine for healing,” he told the Daily News.

“Of all these, most of the people access it during the night for fear of being stigmatised and that’s where we are coming in to say let’s package our traditional medicine so that they can easily be accessible on the counter just like modern medicine so that we remove the stigma associated with our own medicine.”

He said modern medicine is now desperately short of new treatments.

“Drugs take years to get through research and development pipeline at an enormous cost. And the rising drug resistance — partly caused by misuse of medicines — has rendered several antibiotics and other life-saving drugs ineffective. So scientists and pharmaceutical companies are increasingly searching traditional medicine for new drug sources.

“Now, doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well and at a much lower cost than mainstream care and they are learning from it.

“If you also check, there has been an increasing number of people from developed countries who are now using herbal products for both preventive and therapeutic purposes.”

He said over the past decade, there has been an increased use of herbs in developed countries which our own people should not be shy about.

“People should have a refocus on their mind-set because what is happening now is that people from other countries like Europe and Asia, where there are in short supply of herbs, are the ones benefiting more from our herbs.

“On the other hand, because of bias against anything local, people are being made to buy Zimbabwean herbs with a foreign packaging because of the belief that anything from Europe or Asia is superior,” Mwerenga said.

Zimbabwe’s government is one of few in Africa to formally recognise the benefits of traditional healers. Its scientists test the healers’ methods and give them a seal of approval.

Mwerenga claimed he had herbs that treat diseases such as cancer, diabetes and hypertension which have been on the increase in the past decade.

He said there are traditional herbs that are taken orally and kill the cancer cells in a similar but not painful manner like chemotherapy.

“We have herbs that can work wonders; patients can take them orally and burn the cells without the patients feeling any pain. In fact we challenge those in doubt to bring patients who have been to hospitals with the disease and we put them on our treatment and they will see,” Mwerenga said.

“The main reason why we have so much confidence in herbal treatment is because Africa is the cradle of mankind with rich biological diversity in healing powers. Africa is located within the tropical and subtropical climate and it is a known fact that plants accumulate important secondary metabolites through evolution as a means of surviving in a hostile environment. Because of this African plants accumulate chemo-preventive substances more than plants from the northern hemisphere.

“There is also need to make sure that the traditional knowledge systems are not eradicated because with each passing generation, valuable knowledge is lost. So there is need for documentation of these knowledge systems so that they are preserved for future use. The knowledge dates back to many centuries and that’s why you find that about 20 years back cancer diseases as well as diabetes and hypertension were not as chronic as they are today.”

The WHO estimates some 80 percent of Africans rely on traditional medicine from the cradle to the grave. There is just one conventional doctor per 25 000 people compared to a traditional healer for every 200 in some areas. Traditional knowledge is often extremely localised.

Africa has the largest source of herbs in the world with 216 million hectares of forests with more than 45 000 different species of plant with a potential of being used as medicine. Already more than 5 000 of these species are proven healing plants.

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