Soaring drug costs: Locals turn to herbal remedies

HARARE - As the country’s economy stutters amid a sharp spike in the prices of medicines, Zimbabweans are skipping trips to drug stores and instead turning to herbal remedies to treat every-day illnesses.

Herbalists are recording brisk business after the latest round of economic reforms hit supplies of conventional medicines and increased the cost of some generic and even life-saving drugs.

The herbalists are treating everything from snake-bites, to chronic ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) about 85 percent of Zimbabwe’s population relies on traditional medicine for healing.

Alternative medicines practitioner Godfrey Mwerenga, who has been researching on African herbal medicine for the past 37 years, said it is high time that Zimbabweans return to the beginning of evolution and understand that God created herbs for their well-being as well as for preventive and curing of chronic diseases.

The herbalist, who runs the Modern Herbal Drugs and Cosmetics Clinic, said even modern medicine doctors are now turning to traditional medicine for new drugs because researches are too costly and are also taking too long to come up with solutions to some of the emerging diseases.

Mwerenga said the majority Zimbabweans access herbal medicine during the night for fear of being stigmatized “and that is where we are coming in and saying let us 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”.

The rise in drug resistant ailments partly caused by misuse of medicines has rendered several antibiotics and other life-saving drugs ineffective. 

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

The WHO says between 70 and 90 percent of the population in Africa, Asia, Middle East and South America use traditional medicine for healing purposes.

The traditional healing industry is also growing industry in China with the country raking in US$83 billion dollars in sales of herbal medicine in 2012 alone.

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.

According to the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha), there is growing realisation that traditional medicines offer permanent solutions to ailments.

“Most of the active ingredients in modern medicines are derived from herbs, which traditional healers have in abundance. The herbs that are dispensed to patients do not have side-effects because they are all natural. 

“For illnesses such as diabetes, they can easily be treated by herbs because they can naturally control the production and release of insulin into the body,” said Zinatha president George Kandiyero.

“Herbs have even been known to treat conditions such as cysts and tumours that develop in the body without the need for invasive operations,” he added.

Kandiyero said Zinatha members are still being shun by patients who prefer to consult prophets and traditional healers from outside of the country.

“Our major hurdle is the packaging of our medicines. People go all the way to China and buy expensive herbs which they could have easily purchased locally.  If government could assist in that regard, we could easily be a foreign currency earner for the country....

“Another issue is that religious leaders have a misconception that herbs are associated with evil spirits and the devil but that is not the case. There is nothing sinister with taking herbs to heal oneself,” Kandiyero said.

A patient who was treated for a snake-bite in Gokwe, Dorcas Gweure, told the ‘Daily News on Sunday’ that had it not been for a herbalist, she would have been dead.

She detailed how the snake bit her while she was tending to her fields, far from the nearest medical facility.

Her family had to take her to a herbalist, who saved her life.

“While I do not completely recall what happened, all I know is that I vomited a lot as the medicine took effect. After that, the herbalist kept me in his hut for observation before I was discharged having  been satisfied with my recovery. If I had waited to be taken to a clinic, I doubt if I would be alive today,” she said.


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