By HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)

Some of Africa’s traditional medicines have been used since time immemorial and were at the centre of healthcare system until the arrival of colonialists.

Dr Festus Tolo, head of Kemri’s Natural Products Research and Drug Development Programme (NAPREDA), said the program was introduced as part of research progress funded by the Kenya Government through the Parliamentary Committee on Health.

Dr Tolo says NAPREDA Program is therefore a Vision 2030 project that aims at addressing loopholes which conventional medicines may not cure adequately. He noted herbal medicine could contribute towards Universal Health Coverage which is at its initial implementation stages

“The use of herbal medicines for humans and livestock appears to be universal in different cultures of Africa. However, the plants used for the same ailments and the modes of treatment may vary,” said Dr Tolo.

He was speaking at side-events during the 10th KEMRI Annual Scientific Health (KASH) conference held in Nairobi (11-14 Feb 2020) that coincided with Institute’s 40th Anniversary.

According to Dr Sabina Wachira from Kenya Medical Research Institute(KEMRI) up to 80% of people in developing countries use traditional medicines.

Dr Wachira says traditional medicine becomes increasingly desirable and indeed popular where conventional therapeutic modalities are inadequate. This happens even in big hospitals not only rural areas.

“In rural areas, herbal medicines and traditional medicines are the main and sometimes only source of healthcare,” Dr Wachira says.

She challenged governments to invest in development of traditional medicine to accelerate the realization of Universal Health Coverage.

“Since over 60% of people in Kenya living in rural areas depend on traditional medicine for their healthcare, it is high time governments work together with herbalists to reach them,” Dr Wachira eludes.

Dr Jack Githae aged 74 has been a herbalist for the last 50 years says herbal medicine is part and parcel of and sometimes synonymous with African traditional medicine. It is the oldest and still the most widely used system of medicine in the world today.

“A traditional healer is one who provides medical care in the community that he lives, using herbs, minerals, animal parts, incantations, and other methods, based on the cultures and beliefs of his people,” Dr Githae explains.

The expert herbalist however, emphasized that such people must be seen to be competent, versatile, experienced, and trusted, this includes traditional birth attendants.

“The role of herbalists is so remarkable since it arises from a thorough knowledge of the medicinal properties of indigenous plants. The pharmaceutical steps necessary in turning such plants into drugs included selection, compounding, dosage, efficacy, and toxicity,” Dr Githae affirms.

According to Prof Jennifer A. Orwa, traditional medicine is an ancient and culture bound method of healing. It is inherited hence a lifetime healthcare system essential to be considered in the Universal Health Coverage.

Prof Orwa clarifies traditional medicine is viewed as a combination of knowledge and practice used in diagnosing, preventing and eliminating diseases. This may rely on past experiences and observations handed down from generation to generation either verbally, frequently in the form of stories, or spiritually by ancestors or, in modern times, in writing.

She says the importance of traditional medicine, however, dwindled during the colonial period, whereby it was viewed as inferior to Western medicine. This is in contrary to African traditional beliefs that consider the human being as being made up of physical, spiritual, moral and social aspects.

Prof Orwa explains that herbal medicine includes the use of whole plants, parts of plants, or other plant materials, including leaves, bark, berries, flowers, and roots, and their extracts as active ingredients intended for human therapeutic use or for other benefits in humans and sometimes animals.