Anthony Adebolu Elujoba is a Professor of Pharmacognosy in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife. He is a consultant on herbal medicine to the World Health Organization (WHO/AFRO), the African Union (AU/STRC) and the West African Health Organization (WAHO) as the 2nd President of its expert committee on traditional medicine (2012-2016). In this piece, he speaks on how herbal medicine could be of help in the quest to find a cure for the COVID-19.
Can herbs treat or cure covid-19 (or ebola)?
The chances are higher that we can find herbs to fight covid-19 or ebola through herbal research and development effort than from synthetic drugs. It is lamentable that since the first outbreak of ebola in 1976, we have neglected proactive actions to start searching for the cure of ebola and other emerging diseases from our local herbal medicine resources! There are numerous well-known and documented antiviral plants including those that can at least cheaply relieve the symptoms of the present covid-19 or ebola virus among the local plants. Like many other African nations, Nigeria is lucky to have some universities and Research Institutes or Laboratories of Virology that could be engaged in herbal research on emerging diseases. There are also Faculties of Pharmacy with herbal outfits for teaching, research and clinical services that can suggest candidate herbs for covid-19 or ebola screening. They should be called to action now; other ECOWAS countries are already expecting Nigeria to help find an emergency breakthrough for the covid-19 pandemic and ebola epidemic by research.
Can you comment on bitter kola as treatment for covid-19 and ebola virus?
Even though it is in the literature that bitter kola possessed some antiviral activities and even though, I know it is reported as a good antihepatitis (another viral infection), am yet to find in the literature that it has been successfully used to treat covid-19 or ebola virus in an evidence-based clinical trial. When faced with the need, I used to include bitter kola in my treatment of respiratory health issues in the Village Chemist. In general, I do believe (within the limit of my literature up-date) that bitter kola also carries the same chances as all other known antiviral herbs in the books, to treat or prevent covid-19 and ebola or any other emerging diseases if subjected to the test.
What efforts are we making to discover curative herbal remedies for covid-19?
Herbal research scientists like me are handicapped and it shouldn’t be so. Prior to 31st of August, 2014, I wrote an email to the lead virologist in UCH asking for the possibility of testing medicinal plants used by traditional medicine practitioners for other viral diseases e.g. chicken pox, small pox, measles, hepatitis, etc. on ebola virus. No response was received (maybe he never received it) and I did not follow up either. Herbal scientists require readily available virology laboratories for collaboration to test their medicinal plant remedies on covid-19 now, and in a proactive preparedness for future epidemics. The virologists and their laboratories in the country must collaborate with herbal experts to test herbs on covid-19 in vitro, possibly on animals or culture media.
Is there any ailment which herbs cannot treat or cure?
Only a small proportion of known herbs have been investigated pharmacologically and similarly, there are many known diseases that have not been subjected to phytomedical investigation, e.g. covid-19, ebola, etc. There are still many more plants yet uninvestigated and it is impossible to know whether such plants will cure emerging diseases without any pharmacological experiments. The traditional medicine practitioners believe that there is no disease whose cure cannot be found in the forest. There is a spiritual faith-evidence that God has divinely provided cure for every ailment in the same environment where He has allowed the corresponding ailment (Ez. 47:12; Rev. 22:2). Since there are thousands of medicinal plants yet uninvestigated for human or animal ailments, I personally believe that it is surer and wiser to seek herbal solution for a new disease like covid-19 by research than by synthetic investigation for chemical drugs.
Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that, among the Chinese-donated material consignments of covid-19 supports, their government would have included a lot of TCM (traditional Chinese medicines) whose compositions and safety we, or even NAFDAC, did not know little about. The Chinese herbal preparations will most probably not for “cure” but for immune-boosting and/or for covid-19 symptoms. Can we not also use some of the Nafdac-listed immune boosters? We can also be innovators in Nigeria of what the whole world will buy? In 1978, the WHO in Alma Ata has advocated for all developing countries to look in-wards and explore the strengths of their indigenous medical heritage for use in primary health care in order to achieve the goal of “Health for all by the year 2000”. In 2003, the Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO/AFRO) introduced the annual African Traditional Medicine Day (ATM) which has since been celebrated on the 31st of August every year by each Member State including Nigeria, with a common traditional medicine theme yearly. Our herbs are not only for natural vitamins, immune stimulants, tonics, antioxidants and chronic ailments. By the grace of God, with the limited experience of 44 years as a herbal medicine scientist, I have watched many herbs demonstrating safe therapy and actual cure of many acute ailments, even many times more acceptable and tolerable by the populations than orthodox drugs. Of course, therapeutic failures in therapy are not peculiar to herbal medication alone, conventional drugs can also fail to heal or cause serious adverse effects. If the developed countries were the African continent, the forests would have provided answers to many emerging diseases ravaging the whole world. The government of People’s Republic of China did the needful on their herbs with huge investments and with over 20 universities of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the country when I visited in the year 2000. It is recalled that the period of Chairman Mao in the Communist Party (around 1944) saw the beginning of enforcement of collaboration and integration between modern doctors and the traditional Chinese practitioners (barefoot doctors) followed by scientific research and development of TCM. The popularity of the Chinese medicines today took origin from this history, leading to the seriousness later placed on the scientific validation of their indigenous medicine. Nigeria can do much better.
If in Nigeria we had proactively regulated and re-trained the traditional medicine practitioners (TMPs) and their practice, according to the guidelines of WHO/AFRO since 1978, we would have been able to use them in the communities in which they live to trace covid-19 contacts, now that the NCDC and the PTF are talking about community, door-to-door field work. As a significant part of the respected community leadership structure, TMPs could play many roles in some vital public health thematic issues requiring enforcement. Furthermore, since only one infected person in a community can ignite the entire population of such community, in order to arrest the threatening spread of covid-19 or any other emerging epidemic, it makes sense to use the traditional medicine practitioners in the communities; they are significant part of the opinion leaders, nearer to the people than Royal Fathers and are highly respected, trusted and feared by the communities; they should be trained and mobilized like the TBAs of the 1980s through whom information, education and communication (IEC) can be passed to the communities by the covid-19 Task Force. They are the right persons to enforce compliance to the lockdown and community distancing. The traditional care homes represent the first ports of call by anyone with high fever or cough in the local communities; hence, the healers should be educated about the mode of transmission and trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of covid-19. They can be used as agents of basic hygiene including the culture of hand-washing for which I propose the educative caption HAWAC which represents the slogan Hand-Washing-Culture. The traditional medicine practitioners must also be educated to know why they should not attempt to treat any suspected case of covid-19, ebola or any other emerging disease in order to avoid being infected and arresting undue spread. Should they possess any useful remedy, they should submit for research in a designated collection center near them.
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