By ALEX OTTI
“Herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years! Indeed, it has and we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became “medicine”. And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri” – Dara O Briain
“The person who takes medicine must recover twice, once from the disease and once from the medicine”- William Osler
The Republic of Madagascar is an Island country off the coast of East Africa. She is a former French Colony that secured independence in 1960. Their main economic resources are textiles, tourism, agriculture, and mining. About 52% of the population practise traditional religion while the rest are predominantly Christians. It has a population of about 26 million people and covers an area of 592, 800 square kilometers (for proper context Nigeria covers an area of 923,768 square kilometers making Madagascar 64% the size of Nigeria). Still on the comparative plane, Madagascar has 44,000 people per square kilometre while Nigeria has 216,500 people per square kilometre. An interesting fact about Madagascar is that it is blessed with various plants and animals that can hardly be found anywhere else in the world. No less than 170 palm species can only be found in Madagascar.
In fact, it is on record that more than 80% of the country’s close to 15,000 plant species are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Madagascar. Many of these plants over centuries, have been used as natural herbal remedies for different ailments. Some popular drugs for the treatment of leukemia and other types of cancer are made from Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant whose scientific name is “Catharanthus roseus”. Madagascar Periwinkle is also used for treatment of diabetes, sore throat, cough, and lung congestion.
The advent of the novel Coronavirus Pandemic has once more brought to the fore, the debate about the efficacy and safety of traditional healing methods as against the seemingly more sophisticated and modern orthodox medicine. Some people refer to them as alternative medicine versus western or conventional medicine. We are of the view that Western medicine would always find itself on a collision course with traditional healing therapy as the latter would not always lend itself to scientific tests and proofs. This becomes even more so as the steps for scientific examination and tests are set by western medicine itself.
I recall vividly, a lecture delivered at the end of February this year, by Mr. Ugochukwu Okoroafor, a retired Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria, at the graduation ceremony of students of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Port Harcourt.
Excerpts of that lecture, ‘Facing the Brave Future’, were published on the back page of this newspaper on March 7, 2020. That lecture was delivered just before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic and his observations could not have been more prescient! He had challenged the fresh pharmacists interested in pharmacology, to embark on ‘Herb and Lab’ initiatives, in which they would pay more attention to the discovery and mainstreaming of the bounties of the African rainforests which habour numerous herbs and plants that could hold the solutions to many of the world’s intractable diseases and illnesses. He also warned against the persisting ‘Illicit Gin Mentality’, in which we have been brainwashed into accepting everything from the West as superior, while rejecting our age-old solutions and alternatives. According to Mr. Okoroafor, “those familiar with history will recall handily that one way the colonialists protected their export market, like Nigeria, for their infamous ‘fire water’ – gins, whisky and schnapps, was to slam their local equivalent, with the demeaning name of ‘illicit gin’. For good measure, the subliminally powerful word, ‘Imported’ was put on such foreign tipple. Somehow, the sobriquet and the mentality of ‘illicit gin’, has remained with us long after colonisation”. We have been made to perceive most of our indigenous practices and products as ‘illicit’. In the search for a cure for Covid-19, the ‘Illicit Gin mentality’ seems to be playing out once again. We must guard against that and ensure that we champion our own brew. This could be the clarion call to banish that mentality for good!
The Madagascar Covid -Organics (CVO) is said to be the cure for Covid -19. Madagascar had touted this therapy as being efficacious in the control of the Pandemic in the country. As at the time the country was pushing the CVO therapy, Madagascar had very low numbers of infections and no death related to the pandemic. Recently, the country has recorded two deaths and hundreds of infections. But they still believe that their therapy works and have been promoting it particularly in Africa. Early adopters of the Madagascar therapy include Tanzania, The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and Senegal. In fact, the case of Senegal is interesting because it has done a good job of local production of cheaper alternatives in the fight against the Pandemic. It is reported that Senegalese scientists invented a $1 dollar testing kit that produces quicker results than the huge PCR molecular testing machine that is not only very expensive but relatively inefficient, in terms of getting test results. Senegal also locally produced cheap ventilators that cost about $60 a piece as against imported ones that cost around $16,000. Not too long ago, Nigeria joined the other African countries to place orders for the CVO. The consignment, which was delivered by the President of Guinea Bissau, Umaro Embalo to President Buhari was accompanied by an invoice of 170,000.00 Euros, (about N78m).
The CVO is a herb therapy from a plant known as Artemisia Annua. Artemisia is not new to the medical world as it is a herb that has malaria treatment capability. The use of Artemisia dates back to 340BC when it was identified as part of Chinese traditional anti malarial medicine. The more familiar drug Coartem designated by the World Health Organisation(WHO) as one of the most effective anti-malarial treatment, comes from Artemisia therapy. Also, from this family is another anti malaria drug known as Artesunate.
Orthodox Medicine has, however, refused to accept CVO as a cure for Covid-19. The President of Madagascar, Andre Rajoelina has consistently accused WHO of refusing to recognise the homegrown therapy because it is made in Africa. WHO on its own part continues to warn against the use of Covid-Organics as a cure because it has not gone through the approved protocols that would enable it to be certified as a course of treatment for Covid-19. The protocols are like a book work. Unless it satisfies the rigorous scientific process, WHO cannot lend its name to it. This process relies heavily on clinical tests, more tests and replications, just like any other laboratory work. It is imperative that for a drug to be certified by WHO, that drug must go through the rigor of clinical tests and it takes time.
Sometimes, you would be talking about 12 to 24 months. The other observable challenge is that herbs, plants and other traditional medication would find it difficult to pass the tests and get certifications. But we are all witnesses to the efficacy of traditional or alternative medicine in dealing with common ailments in Africa. Some of us as young people and growing up in villages, hardly visited hospitals nor took western medication. If one had malaria which was the common disease at that time, one was made to take drinks from some medicinal plants like Agbo or Dogonyaro, also known as Neem leaf. Other leaves and plants that are known to be medicinal are Bitterleaf, Bitter kola, Moringa, Aloe Vera, Scent leaf, Candle plant, Lettuce, Mint leaf, Water leaf and so on.
Alternative medicine seems to be losing its place in most parts of Africa. In the first place, the blurred line between divinity, spiritualism, mysticism, magic and herbalism did not help traditional African medicine. So, when the traditional healer also administers herbs and plants, he is derogatorily described as a native doctor. But we know that a lot of the western medicine as we know them today have something to do with herbs, plants and other naturally occurring substances. The blanket perception of herbs and plant therapy as inferior to the western medication has left our God given resources and the intellect that goes with it, fallow. We believe that this is the perspective from which the Madagascar President has been fighting. We believe that we should not leave Madagascar alone to wage this war. It may be true that Madagascar has not treated enough people with CVO to warrant its proclamation. It may even be that the therapy is not an effective treatment for Covid-19, but just like President Trump would ask when he was being pilloried for pronouncing HydroxylChloroquine the treatment for Covid-19, what do you have to lose? Some of these therapies are taken as tea, coffee, soft drinks or even as they are, so the argument of side effects and safety hold no water. Again, some recovered patients have claimed that their symptoms were similar to malaria symptoms and they recovered after taking drugs used for malaria treatment and since Artemisia is a proven therapy for malaria, it won’t be unreasonable to expect that the CVO would work.
There are no less than eight lessons to learn from Madagascar with respect to their therapy. The first is that, as a country blessed with natural resources and not just oil, but plants and leaves, we should recognise the medicinal qualities of these resources. These qualities had always been there as explained earlier. Secondly, we should invest in research and development using the skills of our brilliant human resources to convert them into medicines for treatment of common diseases that afflict us instead of waiting for western medicine which may rely on the same resources found at our backyard. Third, we should not underrate the place of packaging. The way Madagascar bottled and branded the Organics makes it very attractive even to those who would rather describe it as quackery .
Fourth, we should stand up and defend our innovations and civilizations against attack by forces outside our influence and not be intimidated into adopting only what they approve.
Fifth, even when we don’t get the approval or recognition of the western world or even China for that matter, Africa, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and of course Nigeria with 15% of that population, is a large enough market for our products and innovations and we should work to capture the local market first even if the rest of the world refused to patronise us. The sixth lesson is that forthrightness pays. This is borne out of the fact that WHO, an institution which refused to pay attention to the Madagascar formulation just a few days ago, has finally started to engage the government of Madagascar. It has been reported that theWHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, has had a virtual meeting with President Rajoelina on the Covid Organics formulation where the former agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement and promised to support the clinical observations in Africa. There’s no doubt that this concession by WHO only happened because Madagascar stuck to its guns, started shipping the therapy to African countries and carried out a strong campaign for its use, a campaign which many African countries signed on to.
The seventh lesson from Madagascar is that we should pay more attention to the political economy of the whole medical and pharmaceutical industry than anything else including saving lives. That is why no matter how much we try to fight it, the conspiracy theories do not seem to want to go away. Some people have even argued that the virus was manufactured to enable the big pharmaceutical industry do more business. It is therefore imperative to understand that any inventions not coming from ‘the usual suspects’, would find it difficult to be accepted. Meanwhile, the direction from where vaccines and cures are expected, says we should wait another one year even as more deaths are recorded daily. The eight and final lesson from Madagascar is that there is no free lunch even, as they say, in Freetown. When the campaign to ship CVO to African countries started, some of us thought Madagascar was sending free samples to brother African countries to test and confirm the efficacy of the therapy and then decide to place an order or not. That was not going to be! If we were in the shoes of Madagascar, we would have been generous enough to despatch the formulation free of charge. Madagascar is not wired that way. As you received your consignment, you received an accompanying bill with it. That was why our own portion came with an invoice. Given that it was going to be paid for, recipient countries would take it seriously and Madagascar will remain in business.
Now, to our Covid experts, we have a question for you: how is the Madagascar therapy is doing?
Please permit me to wish our Muslim faithfuls a happy Sallah celebration. Eid Mubarak.