Herbal medicines: The good, the bad and the ugly

Herbal medicines: The good, the bad and the ugly
Source: Nyarko Ofori Obed, Saabea Owusu Konadu & Gilda Opoku | School Of Medical Sciences, Kwame Nkrumah University Of Science And Technology (SMS-KNUST)
Date: 01-03-2017 Time: 10:03:07:pm

All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, the challenge of science is to find it, goes a popular saying.

Herbal drugs have stood the test of time, passed on from generation to generation often informally and by the process of trial and error. In Ghana, herbal medicines are fundamentally based on traditional religious beliefs or popular experience. According to the WHO, herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products, that contain as active ingredients parts of plants, or other plant materials, or combinations. Currently, it is estimated that 2.3 billion people representing 56% of the world’s population still depend on traditional healing techniques.

In Africa, approximately 80% of its population take some form of herbal medication. The common reasons for using herbal medicines are personal preference and affordability. It is also perceived to be more effective than western medicine and without side effects. Worldwide there has been tremendous expansion in the interest and use of herbal medicines. 

Over the years, successive Ghanaian governments have shown interest in herbal medicines via the establishment of the traditional and Alternate Medicine Directorate, the center for Plant Medicine Research and the Department of Herbal medicine, KNUST. This has made the practice of herbal medicine relatively safe and formal.

People have high reverence for everything natural, believing that they are pure and without adverse effects. They hardly consider the fact that they are introducing into their body unknown chemical substances of plant origins. Some herbal constituents are carcinogenic (cancer predisposing), like safrole, bergaten and pyrrolizidines alkaloids. Research into herbal medicines proves that some herbal drugs can be linked to strokes, muscle weakness, seizures, liver, renal and cardiac failures. 

People frequently combine Herbal medicines with orthodox drugs, presumably to make them more effective, however, this can be devastating due to drug interactions. For even orthodox drugs, there is an extra precaution when it comes to pregnant women and children because of their vulnerability but this is not so with herbal drugs as it is purported to have no side effects.

Internationally, for a drug to be approved for sale it must first be tested. It undergoes preclinical trials using animal models, then human trials to check for safety, dosage, and efficacy. This may take years. The company then sends the evidence from these tests to the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) to prove that the drug is safe and effective for its intended use. 

The team from FDA includes physicians, statisticians, chemists, pharmacologists and other scientists review the data if accurate. If the review establishes that a drug’s health benefits outweigh its known risk, it is approved for sale. How many herbal drugs in Ghana are approved by the FDA? How many herbal medicines have a standard dosing? How many herbal drugs have a scientifically proven efficacy for their numerous acclaimed indications?

A number of herbalists attribute the causes of diseases to spiritual forces coupled with improper methods of preparation and storage of herbal medicines. The average herbalist has little knowledge of human anatomy and physiology and hence might not be adequately equipped to diagnose diseases.

One cannot listen to the radio or watch television without being bombarded by herbalist (so called doctors) advertising their wares and making outrageous claims often misleading the public. Disappointments surely follow. As a part of the code of medical ethics by the Ghana Health Service “All Service personnel shall avoid the use of their professional qualifications in the promotion of commercial products”. Again why aren’t herbal practitioners held to the same standards?

There must be massive public education on the use of herbal medicine. Herbal preparation should be standardized, quality control and toxicological studies made into every product sold on the market. There should policy change to properly regulate the practice of traditional medicine. In as much we want to preserve our traditional way of life and healing as well as reduce the massive amount of money we spend to import orthodox drugs, if it must be done it must be done well. 

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