Traditional medicine receives global recognition

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Newly appointed chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for Covid-19, Professor Motlalepula Matsabisa.
Newly appointed chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for Covid-19, Professor Motlalepula Matsabisa.
Professor Motlalepula Matsabisa / supplied

It’s time for the world to know what African traditional medicine can do.

So says the newly appointed chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for Covid-19, Professor Motlalepula Matsabisa.

This exciting new role puts him in the top spot in Africa’s fight against the virus. The associate professor at the University of the Free State’s pharmacology department was chosen from a panel of experts to head a committee that will provide research on traditional medicine therapies and how they could assist in preventing and treating Covid-19.

“The key thing is to give recognition to African traditional medicine and the role it can play in health systems – how African medicine could and does play a critical role in terms of prevention, and also in terms of curative aspects of health,” Professor Matsabisa tells DRUM.

“Many of the medicines we have in our clinics and hospitals have their origins in traditional medicines and plants. Your simple aspirin, for example. Disprin, which contains aspirin, comes from the wild willow tree called umchunumbe in isiXhosa or isiZulu.”

The committee, comprised of 25 experts from different African countries, is supported by the African Union, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership. It will be responsible for formulating guidelines and regulations for testing traditional medicines and establishing clinical trials to ensure their safety and efficacy.

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Lessons from Africa

Global interest in traditional medicine was sparked by the popularity of a drink containing the herb Artemisia annua that was touted by Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina as a cure for the disease.

Although it is still too early to confirm what drugs they will be researching, Professor Matsabisa says the Madagascan concoction will be one of them.

The team is currently looking for studies from African countries on their indigenous plants so they can do further research and testing.

“The focus right now is to look at drugs made from traditional medicines. We want to show the world that African medicines can respond to Covid-19 and we want to ensure people make the right choices in terms of what traditional medicines they use. These traditional medicines must be safe, effective and of good quality.”

For example, there are two local plant studies in South Africa that could prove useful to the advisory committee, the professor says. They are on Artemisia afra, also known as umhlonyane, and cannabis.

There’s been a lot of interest in umhlonyane, which has raised questions about public safety.

“People have started going into the wild and harvesting umhlonyane and this became a concern for us,” Professor Matsabisa says. “Umhlonyane has not been tested for Covid-19 and we don’t want people avoiding other treatment because they are taking this.”

Studies relating to cannabis have more scientific backing, he says. The plant has over 100 different cannabinoids that act on the brain and blood vessels.

Cannabis dilates blood vessels, and this could help with upper respiratory problems caused by Covid-19 because more blood is pushed through the lungs.

Cannabis may also help with what’s called a cytokine storm – an overreaction of the body’s immune system – that can be triggered by Covid-19.

Professor Matsabisa says the medical world needs to learn from past pandemics and not only focus on finding a vaccine. Treatment is also important.

“There are some viruses we never got vaccines for, like HIV, but the development of therapeutics has helped manage the virus to a point where we can live with it.”

Professor Matsabisa says he’s aware of the enormity of his new role but he’s looking forward to working with the experts and world health bodies.

“And to traditional healers I say, ‘Let’s work together’. We have two things to do – fight Covid-19 and show the world African medicines can also respond like other medicines to any pandemic that comes our way.”

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