Politicians, medical practitioners, academics and other stakeholders are advocating for African governments to invest in traditional herbal treatment for Covid-19.

They say the continent must not sit aloof as the rest of the world works to develop vaccines and treatment for the Coronavirus disease.  

“We need an African solution to the global challenge. African leaders must be urged to look within for African solutions,” Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, member of parliament for North Tongu told a sitting of the house last month.  

“In Ghana, we have had centuries upon centuries of known wisdom of herbal experts of repute who have held the fort,” Ablakwa added. “The challenge has been that the efficacy has not been documented over the years. So, let us invest. We should support our herbal practitioners because who knows, the cure may come from Africa.”

In April, Minister for Health Kwaku Agyemang Manu submitted 32 herbal drugs from the Ghana Federation of Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association to the state-run Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine to test their potency and efficacy for managing Covid-19.

In May, the center wrote back to the minister announcing nine of the herbal products had passed the test as immune boosters that can relief Covid-19 symptoms. Some of the medication had already been approved as safe by the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA).

But further tests, including clinical trials, must be done before they can be confirmed as Covid-19 treatments. Ghana, with a population of about 30 million people, has recorded more than 10,000 cases of Covid-19 and almost 50 deaths.

“Government should invest in our local herbal practitioners,” said Ablakwa, who is also ranking member on parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “We must not always be at the receiving end. Herbal solutions work. And herbal solutions can also be efficient in providing health care. So, let us do away with that stigma and discrimination that usually greets traditional medicine as against Western medicine. None is inferior to the other.”

Ablakwa criticized African governments for failing to live up to an African Union agreement that all member countries annually invest at least 1% of their gross domestic product (GDP) in science and research.

“Unfortunately, we have not met that target. But as there is a race now for treatment, medication and vaccine for Covid-19. African countries should come together and pull resources together. We must also invest in our own solutions,” he said.

The Ghana Health Service has been engaged in aggressive testing and tracing for people who have been infected by Covid-19 for isolation and treatment at various centers that have been established across the country. The Ghana Medical Herbalists Association wants government to add herbal treatment to the options that can be used to help patients recover from the disease.

“Government should include the herbal option in the treatment protocol so that at the isolation centers, those diagnosed can use the herbal treatment,” Dr. Prince Osei, the association’s public relations officer, said in an interview with Joy News.

“Since the Center for Plant Medicine has tested the medications and they have potential, and FDA has certified that the products are safe, I believe there is nothing wrong if we can use it on the patients to get clinical data on them,” he added.

Dr. Osei noted that the drugs hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were used on patients “after in-vitro tests in the lab showed they have activity on Covid-19. There weren’t any clinical trials. So, we need to use our herbal treatments on people.” The World Health Organization later issued a metadata analysis that suggested the two drugs may have a serious impact on the cardiovascular system and are a potentially lethal combination.

Some recovered Covid-19 patients have been responding to suggestions herbal treatments are used to treat those who get infected.

“I would not have had a problem with herbal treatment if that is what was given me to recover,” said Kofi Osei (not his real name), a government worker in Accra who was infected with Covid-19 and has since recovered. “After all, that is exactly what our ancestors have used for many years now before modern medicine came.

“But as a student of science, I know those herbal concoctions should be tested first before it is used on patients,” he continued. “Otherwise, I will rather stick to the vitamin C and orthodox medicine that was given me for my treatment.”

Confidence in African herbal preparations

Prof. Paul Amuna,who is Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana, observed that herbal medicinal products, including the roots, barks, stems, seeds, fruits and leaves of plants, have been used in Africa since time immemorial to treat various illnesses and Covid-19 should not be an exception.

That these various ingredients have been used as part of traditional remedies for the sick in African households is very well known, he wrote in an opinion piece published by state owned Ghanaian Times Newspaper. In some cases, inhaling the steam from boiling neem and/or guava leaves (and/or drinking the water) has been claimed to be helpful in treating colds, catarrh and even malaria. Similarly, there are those who swear to a blended mixture of garlic, cloves, ginger, lemon and other ingredients “curing” their flu, he wrote.

In the advent of Covid-19 which has no known cure to date, there are stories and video testimonies of using these home remedies as “cures” for the virus.

These are not new remedies and have been used by our ancestors before the advent of modern medicine and continue to be used by those who brew them at home and believe them to be helpful, Amuna observed. However, this treatment should never be confused with a “cure,” as such claims must be backed up by scientific evidence, which by and large is lacking.

“I would therefore urge great caution in propagating the narrative of a cure from traditional herbal remedies at this point,” Prof. Amuna added.

Covid Organics controversy

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina in April championed a herbal treatment called Covid Organics that he says can cure Covid-19. He claimed it is an old malaria treatment that is curing Covid-19 patients in his country. Several African countries, including Gambia and Tanzania, have received samples of Covid Organics for testing.

There have been criticisms that the herbal remedy has not gone through internationally set standards for approval and hence cannot be championed as cure for Covid-19. The African Union (AU) says it is working to obtain technical data regarding the safety and efficiency of the herbal remedy before it can endorse it. AU Commissioner for Social Affairs Amira ElFadil said in a statement that the AU is working through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) to review the scientific data gathered so far on the safety and efficacy of Covid Organics.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in a recent statement, said it recognizes that Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an important role in providing care to populations. The WHO, however, said Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world.

“Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice and are natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical,” the statement read. “The use of products to treat Covid-19 which have not been robustly investigated can put people in danger, giving a false sense of security… and may also increase self-medication and the risk to patient safety.”

On the floor of parliament, Ablakwa praised the Africa Union “for keeping an open mind and agreeing to test the medication from Madagascar despite initial criticism from WHO.”

Osei said the Ghana Herbal Medical Association does not have a problem with Ghanaians using samples from Madagascar but is urging the Ghana government to invest in Ghanaian herbal preparations.