We should spur herbal medicine safety

07Feb 2017
The Guardian
We should spur herbal medicine safety

HERBALISM also refered to as herbology or herbal medicine is the use of plants for medicinal purposes, and the study of botany for such use.

Plants have been the basis for medical treatments through much of human history, and such traditional medicine is still widely practiced today.

Plants or plant extracts that may be eaten or applied to the skin. Since ancient times, herbal medicine has been used by many different cultures throughout the world to treat illness and to assist bodily functions.

Herbal medicines are one type of dietary supplement. They are sold as tablets, capsules, powders, teas, extracts, and fresh or dried plants. People use herbal medicines to try to maintain or improve their health.

Tanzania and Africa as a whole needs to develop standards to assure the safety and benefit of its herbal medicines. According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of the world’s population depend on medicinal plants for their primary healthcare.

And therefore herbal medicines have been the mainstay of economies of Africa.

Indigenous medicine remains the most important form of treatment, and culturally accepted practice of a diverse local health system yet African herbal medicine relies mainly on wild harvested plants with sustainability causing concern.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands contain around 60,000 species of higher plants – roughly a quarter of the world’s total. Yet, in spite of this diversity, the region has contributed only less than 8 per cent of the total 1,100 medicinal plants commercialised internationally.

According to research medicinal plants account for over 40 per cent of licensed drugs and that important conventional medicines for curing major diseases are from traditional herbs, such as the antimalarial Artemisinin extracted from Artemisin annua.

The pace of growth, however, has been slow because of lack of robust standards to guide their manufacture and use. Without standards there can be no guarantee of quality, safety and positive health outcomes.

We therefore call for the development of structures, institutions and consolidation of human capacity to not only ensure that traditional medicines are safe, efficacious and of good quality, but also for documenting these traditional practices.

Tanzania is estimated to have over 80,000 traditional healers with varying specialities. The majority of healers are herbalists using mainly plants and a few animal and mineral products in their practices. Traditional healers are likely to be first consulted health provider due to socio-cultural settings in rural Tanzania.

Over the 12,000 higher plant species growing in Tanzania, at least a quarter have medicinal values and some of them already have a big market potential worldwide and can be exploited for local drug production.

There are a number of established medicinal plants growing in Tanzania. The country continues to import drugs derived from these plants while their production could be done locally.

The Institute has already started to pioneer the production of drugs from known plants that grow in Tanzania. There is an urgent need to strengthen capability for standardisation of herbal medicines.

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