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COVID-19: WHO cautions against traditional herbs in Africa

Isaac Mugabi
May 5, 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against the use of traditional herbs in the treatment of COVID-19 as African governments struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Students in Antananarivo, Madagascar hold up bottles of 'COVID Organics'
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Rijasolo

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A statement released by WHO this week said, "as efforts are underway to find treatment for COVID-19, caution must be taken against misinformation, especially on social media, about the effectiveness of certain remedies."

The warning came after Madagascar introduced its own medicine for the treatment of the coronavirus and delivered the potions to Guinea Conakry, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Tanzania had yet to place its order.

Baptized "COVID Organics," the herbal drink is derived from artemisia — an anti-malaria plant mixed with indigenous herbs.

Despite firing the warning shot, the health watchdog said it recognizes that traditional medicine has many benefits, and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine.

It also said that medicinal plants such as artemisia are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 but first need to be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects.

Read more: Young inventor helps Ethiopia's COVID-19 crisis

Traditional v modern medicine

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Dr Bertha Ayi, an infectious disease specialist in the US state of Maryland, told DW. "The only place where it can wrong is if they don't go through the same process of testing on animals- phases one and two."

"I've had to butt heads with traditional medicine men who think they can come out of the blue and claim that they have found a cure for COVID-19," Ayi said. "We're not going to tolerate that at all."

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli is pushing for the use of traditional herbs rather than COVID-19 testing kits. He recently ordered an investigation into the National Laboratory Services, accusing it of carrying out non-human tests that turned out to be positive from coronavirus.

Read more: Opinion: Magufuli's COVID-19 apathy is a recipe for disaster

Guinea-Bissau has received several boxes of COVID-Organics
Guinea-Bissau has received several boxes of COVID-OrganicsImage: DW/B. Darame

But Dr. Frank Minja, a Tanzanian physician, who has been monitoring COVID-19 cases in the region, is concerned that Tanzanians may become over-reliant on herbal remedies and forget hygiene.

"Traditional medicines are very good at reducing symptoms, and this has to be distinguished from actually being a cure," Minja told DW. "There is no known cure for this COVID-19 disease, whether with western or traditional medicine."

"One of my biggest fears is that people may indeed reduce the washing of hands, reduce the social distancing and instead rely on these herbal remedies and be mistaken that they are an exact cure for the disease," Minja said.

According to the World Health Organization, 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 natural, establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical.

In Togo, for instance, traditional medicine researchers are pushing for collaboration with modern researchers to find ways through which traditional medicine can also be integrated into the treatment of COVID-19.

"This disease has shown us that we are very vulnerable and that it is not enough to be a researcher in your corner; you need collaboration. And here today, we have conventional researchers, traditional researchers, and clinicians," said Komi Kokou, a Togolese researcher.

"The virus has shown us that we can work together for the good of the community."

Read more: Why the world is hungry for a coronavirus drug made in India

Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina
Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina believes artemisia has virtues against COVID-19Image: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/A. Novoderezhkin

Mixed reactions

In Liberia, ordinary citizens were excited after receiving their consignment of the Madagascan potion. As the country reached 166 confirmed cases and 18 deaths, President George Weah hoped that the potion will flatten the curve in his country.

"Health authorities should carryout tests on this herbal stuff," Olive Stevenson, a resident in the capital Monrovia, told DW. "If it can work, I don't see any problem with it. What we want is the cure."

"I am so happy about the medicine. Our people have been dying for long. So, I am very pleased that the medicine has arrived in the country and will now be administered to the sick," local resident Rodell Conneh said.

Eugene Fahngon, from the information ministry, said, "It means a lot to the government of Liberia in the fight against COVID-19 since every government around the world wants to find the cure or its prevention."

Despite the excitement in countries that have ordered the Madagascan potion, which has reiterated that it will continue to support countries as they explore the role of traditional health practitioners in prevention, control, and early detection of the virus as well as case referral to health facilities.

Read more: The race towards a coronavirus vaccine: What's the latest?

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