Traditional African Medicine-
Undermined in the Western World, and neglected in Africa
By Osayande Aghaze: Author/Film Producer
The World Health Organization has estimated that, on the African continent, between 60%-80% of all people rely on traditional medicine for their primary health care. In rural Africa, it may be the only form of treatment that is available to thousands of people.
African fauna and flora are diverse: there are more than 4 000 types of African plant species that can be used for medicinal purposes.
Whilst there is much to say for Western medicine and their benefits, the African way cannot be rejected out of hand. For thousand of years, traditional African Medicine has healed and helped people. Slowly the benefits of these local plants are being recognized and used in the West. In fact, in 2010, a survey among US medical students found that 74% of them believed that traditional medicines should be integrated into the western way of life.
A success story
One such success story of a traditional medicine that found its way to the westernized world is that of Vernonia Amygdalina commonly known as Bitter Leaf. It has been found that Bitter Leaf can lower cholesterol, is a copious source of anti-oxidants and even inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells. Today Bitter Leaf Capsules are popularly used as an effective health supplements throughout the Western World. www.natureherballife.com.
Why has traditional African Medicine been neglected?
Seeing that there is merit in lots of these African herbal plant medicines, why is African medicine still under-develop? The answer to this question is not straight-forward. Colonial period in Africa witness an aggressive efforts by Western Imperial Powers to ensure that everything Africa was demonized. However, it can also be argued that there are other challenges to Africa traditional medicines that are local and largely due to poor African leadership.
A secretive way of life
The African way of life is often cloaked in symbolic and spiritual rituals. Traditional medical practices are kept secret and are often much localized. Recipes and ways of mixing medicine were not written down but passed on orally from generation to generation. A stranger cannot just walk in and obtain information. Therefore, due to the nature and history of African medicine, it was not easily assimilated into the Western world.
There is one major difference in outlook between conventional Western medicine and the African way: the fact that traditional African medicine takes a holistic view of the whole person and treats illnesses on the premises of interconnectedness and then with indigenous plant medicines.
Patients may suffer from the same disease, but they might receive different treatments.
The practice of traditional African medicine goes out from the viewpoint that each individual has his or her own constitution and social circumstances which will let the disease manifest in its own ways. Each patient, therefore, needs to be treated specially. This highly unique way of treating patients is not easily tolerated in the fast-paced Western world.
A big problem with rural African medicine is that fact that it cannot easily be regulated. The ‘medicine’ is often sold in its raw form as leaves, bark, fruit and even animal bits and pieces. Unfortunately, practitioners on the street are often fraudulent and will tell hurting consumers what they want to hear just to sell them something.
True African medicine healers study plants and their effects for years. They believe the plants must be taken fresh and they often keep the sick with them to study the effect of the medicine they are given.
For traditional medicines to be really utilized best, procedures need to be put in place to assure quality control, to authenticate plants and to standardize the collection of the crude plant products.
The future of African medicine ; It does show promise
During the last few decades, a lot of research has been done that gave evidence that traditional African medicinal plants do have merit and that they show promise.
For African users
Most Africans feel that the use of these plants is better than traditional Western medicines and more effective in their uses. For African users, Western medicine just does not treat some conditions adequately.
In a study done in Nigeria, it has been found that medicinal plants effectively treated the infections associated with HIV Aids. In another study, 522 plants have been found to help with numerous Nigerian ailments. Insect compounds, combined with medicinal plants, treated ear, and eye problems, convulsions in children and yellow fever.
However, sound scientific and clinical proof of benefits has only been found in a few plants such as bitter aloe, bitter leaf, gum arabic, wormwood, rooibos and bitter melon, among a few others.
Since 1945, there has been considerable interest among foreign researchers that discovered the value of traditional healing and medicinal plants. They started to study pharmacology, photochemistry, organic synthesis and the overall usefulness of the plants.
Traditional medicine is important as a source for the identification of bioactive agents that can be used when synthetic medicine is made. Common-used species are most important to these researchers. They want medicinal plants with the longest track record.
In the USA and Europe, extracts from medicinal plants are sold in purified form for the treatment of various diseases. These medicines are also valuable because they can be used to generate other medicines.
Modern science has the exciting task of identifying and characterizing bioactive components of these plants. It is, however, a challenging task. Batches of the product, for example, cannot be compared if they come from different parts of Africa, or even if they were harvested in different years.
However, one of the main constraints for the growth of these types of medicine in the modern day is the fact that it is extremely difficult to validate the traditional knowledge.
The good news is that some of the biggest research bodies worldwide take traditional medicine seriously. In 1970, there were only 12 countries that had institutes to study traditional medicine. In 2007, there were 62.
In the US, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is an important institute with a huge budget of over US$100 million yearly. Initiatives such as the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics and Innovation are also actively involved in encouraging the mining of traditional medicine.
All that is needed is for research efforts to be joined and collaborations to be formed across the globe so that new techniques could spark a revival in African traditional medicine worldwide.
Traditional African medicine is a body of knowledge that has been developed over literally thousands of years. The World Health Organization encourages the use thereof. They say that it need not replace mainstream medical practices, but rather be complementary to it.
It is a fact: traditional African medicine and healing practices have long been neglected. The good news is that slowly, but surely, its value is being recognized. The next few decades will certainly see exciting developments in this sector. American company like Nature Herbal Life; www.natureherballife.com is leading the way in this promising direction.