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[NAIROBI] The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) are pushing for COVID-19 traditional medicine research in Africa.
 
“With the current challenge of COVID-19, the time has come for all stakeholders to bring ideas and best practices from traditional and Western medicine together and make the most of what both branches of medicine have to offer,” says Oss Kasilo, regional adviser for traditional medicine at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, in an interview with SciDev.Net this month (5 August).

Traditional medicine, according to a study, is the health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs combining plant, animal and mineral based medicines applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being. It also includes spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises.
 
The WHO and Africa CDC last month formed a 25-member expert advisory panel selected from Central, Eastern, Southern and West African countries to provide scientific advice and support to countries on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine for fighting COVID-19.

“With the current challenge of COVID-19, the time has come for all stakeholders to bring ideas and best practices from traditional and Western medicine together.”

Oss Kasilo, WHO Regional Office for Africa

“Commendable efforts are ongoing on the continent to find COVID-19 therapies in traditional medicine,” says John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC and WHO Special Envoy on COVID-19, in a statement. “Rigorous clinical testing to evaluate safety and efficacy will be critical, similar to other areas of medicine.”
 
The committee will coordinate support to African countries to collaborate in undertaking clinical trials with a focus on traditional medicine-based therapies.
 
Countries in Africa, Kasilo explains, may find a product for COVID-19 treatment or prevention from the African biodiversity. “If this happens, we can fast-track for large-scale local manufacturing to improve access to medical products for the benefit of the people who need [them] in Africa and abroad”.
 
Kasilo adds that some African medicinal plants such as Aloe ferox and Moringa oleifera possess antiviral properties, and thus proper scientific investigations on such plants may yield herbal medicines with preventive or curative effects on the novel coronavirus.
 
“Herbal medicines which have been found to be safe, efficacious and of good quality will complement other packages of solutions for the management of COVID-19 and have the potential to contribute to achieving the goals of Universal Health Coverage,” she tells SciDev.Net. Universal health coverage is a system that guarantees everyone access to healthcare.
 
The experts, Kasilo explains, are expected to serve until WHO has declassified COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern.
 
Patrick Engeu Ogwang’, head of Department of Pharmacy at Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science and Technology, says that the WHO has had several strategies on African traditional medicine including the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014–2023 but none has made any impact.
 
The only way to adequately integrate herbal medicine into the healthcare system, he explains, is to have parallel structure for traditional medicine as that of biomedical in the ministries of health: from lowest health unit to the director-general level with staff who are trained and have expertise in traditional medicine. “Herbal medicine, if promoted, will reduce use of biomedicine and health expenditure by more than 80 per cent [in Africa],” says Ogwang’. “Herbal medicine is multipronged...tackling both symptoms and causes of diseases.”
 
Isaac Kingsley Amponsah, a senior lecturer in herbal medicine at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, calls on the WHO and the Africa CDC to have enough room to accommodate the medical practices of some indigenous communities, which serve as their main primary healthcare.
 
But Amponsah tells SciDev.Net that some traditional medicine practitioners are always reluctant to cooperate with experts who take advantage of traditional medicine to advance their profession but do little to promote the practice.
 
“African governments should have a drug development agenda from the vast array of medicinal plant resources, establish research institutions to develop herbal remedies for various diseases and fund innovative clinical trials on herbal remedies,” he adds.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.