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Opinions of Sunday, 2 August 2020

Columnist: Jerry K. Asomaning

COVID-19 death surge: Can traditional medicine and herbs help?

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Recorded deaths from the coronavirus neared 700,000 as the disease continue to spread like wild fire, surging back at hotspots in Asia, Europe and the U.S. Ghana has also been rocked by its deadliest surge since the start of the pandemic in March this year. Deaths linked to the coronavirus in Ghana set another new high last week with 182 deaths while confirmed COVID- 19 cases rose to 35,501.

With the new corona virus cases and death toll keep surging, scientists are everywhere racing to find cure. They have tried for many years studying respiratory viral infections without finding any drugs. Indeed fighting viruses has become a difficult challenge for western/modern medicine. In the face of this and every epidemic, people turn to the western medicine for solution which has lot of undesirable side effects. That’s not to say western medicine shouldn’t be used at all but we can’ t continue to rely on illusion of frequent promises by western medicine and in fact the only one to find that magic cure to treat infectious disease

Traditional medicine having played a major role in the fight against the coronavirus in China and other countries, many herbal doctors are pushing for roles in the fight against the pandemic across Africa. But all attempts to court the attention of respective governments and the medical community to give herbal medicine a chance have fallen on deaf ears. It is unfortunate that traditional medicine has been overlooked, and the initial exciting research findings have not been followed up with larger, more rigorous clinical trials. . We therefore can’t sit aloof and watch our people die each day while we also can provide them with same solution. Is there nothing we can do to combat the virus and to provide cure to our African people infected with this deadly disease other than allow people fall for the synthetic drugs such as Chloroquine and its little brother Hydroxychloroquine that can hardly cure common malaria but bring about a lot of unwanted adverse effects on our people.

Considering western medicine drugs such as Chloroquine, Remdesvir etc are currently being tested and used to treat COVID-19, the same courtesy should be extended to herbal medicine with diverse mechanism of action and with limited side effects to treat or use as prophylactic against COVID-19

Both western and traditional medicine exhibits a diverse array of biological activities which can be effectively harnessed for combating the deadly coronavirus

Nature’s cure relegated to the background

Modern medicine seems to have prioritized white supremacy and we’ve seen the effects of that in the last few years. The long-standing bias against indigenous medicine over synthetic western medicine in the practice of medicine has ended all of us in a very ugly situation where diseases continue to thrive and overpower well known drugs. This has made our people highly vulnerable to highly infectious diseases.

Despite numerous in-vitro and in vivo studies indicating potential benefits of herbal medicine in treating or managing infectious diseases both in the past and present, modern science continue to downplay such an important ancient knowledge. Modern science has done everything to discredit indigenous medicine and brainwash our people against relying on plants. Other methods of healing including herbal medicine are discarded because they are considered pseudo-scientific. This explained why though we are so helpless and frustrated in the face of a pandemic yet modern science will not turn to herbal medicine for help.

We must place much premium on indigenous herbal medicine as we do on western medicine. Indigenous people don’t need western science to accept or legitimize our own method of healing. Unless modern medicine and indigenous medicine find a way to partner, we will never benefit from potential benefits of both methods.

Whether backed by science or by years of use, whether accepted or ridicule by western medicine doctors, several clinical trials have confirmed some plants or herbal formulas may be safe and effective and indeed have antiviral properties. The underlying mechanization of traditional medicine in management of infectious diseases has also been investigated.

Western medicine option for COVID-19

Western medicine currently has no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, which was first discovered in Wuhan in central china. Vaccination and drugs are currently being developed and investigated respectively by pharmaceuticals companies. The current treatment option for COVID-19 involves treating symptoms and oxygen therapy to keep the body in a stable condition in severe cases. Available treatment include repurposed anti-malaria medications such as Chloroquine and its cousin Hydrochloroquine ,Azithromycin, acetaminophen etc. Other medications currently being used in include Remdesivil, which has been given to hundreds of people infected with Ebola, which hasn’t been effective as scientists had hoped. It’s is important to note that treatment method for western medicine keeps changing daily as medication are being added or removed based on current happenings and therapeutic effect about those drugs .

Traditional medicine and COVID-19 (Reasons why traditional medicine must also be given a chance)

The world prefers to view indigenous medicine through the prism of culture rather than science. And so many young people especially those who have been exposed to ideas about the so called ‘science’ in their formal education tend to pay no attention to or even ridicule indigenous medicine. What we must know is that traditional medicine practices are not fixed but constantly evolving. Practitioners are always learning and adjusting their crafts and so their knowledge is ‘traditional in the sense that it is passed on from one person to another.

Historical precedence for trusting herbal medicine

First of all, there is a strong historical precedence for trusting in traditional medicine’s effectiveness in treating COVID-19 and other infectious disease as well. Throughout its history, Indigenous medicine has been used to treat whatever diseases were affecting our people. Before the advent of western medicine, indigenous medicine was the mainstream medicine.

We have a long history of responding to novel epidemics through the use of herbal medicine. But in recent years, the status of the booming modern medicine took the lead and surpassed that of Indigenous medicine. Traditional medicine is out of the scene when treatments of acute and contagious diseases are concerned. It’s as if there were no epidemics in Africa in the past? We’ve experienced these sorts of plagues many times in our thousands of years of history. Our ancestors had their own laid down methods and steps in combating epidemics. Isolations and quarantine methods were applied during epidemics and they those methods are not new to our African people.

For example, historical records have shown that the Chinese people have experienced more than 320 fighting epidemics since the Hun dynasty over 2000 years ago. They were able to curb those epidemics with Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and did not experience high death rate compared to epidemics such as the time of Black Death disease in Europe which wiped out 60% of the entire European population.

I would end with a quote from Jaining Xianfeng, a respected Chinese doctor of Family Health –a top herbal hospital for affluent Chinese citizens
If traditional Chinese medicine was not effective, the Chinese people would already be destroyed.

Mechanism of action between Herbal and Western medicines compared

First of all, indigenous medicine is fundamentally different from bioscience in terms of it formulation. Traditional medicine is formulated by combining many ingredients in other to tackle not only the specific symptoms that the patient is experiencing, but also treat the underlying cases. Unlike Western medicine which are formulated to kill only the causative pathogen (whether virus or bacteria), Indigenous medicine aims at engaging the innate immune and healing responses of the patient. And this unique formulation method places indigenous medicine above western medicine .This ,therefore makes indigenous medicine uniquely suited to tackling novel infectious diseases such as coronavirus , because it’s not only aimed at combating the viruses or the bacteria but also seek to strengthening the body’s effective immune response.

Secondly, different comparative studies have found many plant compounds that may be more effective and has little adverse effects than synthetic anti-malaria drugs such as Chloroquine and its less toxic version Hydroxychloroquine, antiretroviral drugs like azidothymidine, azithromycin- an antibiotics drug, ramsesivir. For example, fractions of an antimalarial leaf extract of the neem tree ( Azadirachta indica) were compared with those of chloroquine, in in-vitro assays against plasmodium faciparum. A comparative study by J.Udeinya et al affiliated to the Department of Pharmacology, Howard University College of Medicine –USA concluded that anti-malaria Neem- leaf extract not only cure chloroquine- resistant malaria but significantly reduce transmission which makes it superior to chloroquine.

I am not against Chloroquine being used to treat SARS-Cov-2(COVID-19) and I am also aware that it will not be via the same mechanism by which the drug functions as anti-malaria. Scientists have detailed biochemical properties of Chloroquine (which is synthetic of quinine derived from an ancient Peruvian plant, Cinchona) that indicate it could be used against some viral infections. But the comparison is necessary to remind all of us to also place premium on plant medicines which has proven to be potent sources of anti-viral agents with same major advantage over conventional medicine.

Broad therapeutic potency and limited side effects advantage

Medicinal plants have proven to be potent sources of antiviral agents with some major advantages over western drugs due to their broad therapeutic potency and limited side effects. The growing drug resistance, partly caused by misuse of medications, has rendered several antibiotics and other life-saving drugs useless. Herbal medicines on the other hand are effective in prevention and supporting optimal physiological function support, as well as to relieve symptoms, and support full recovery with few or no side effects. Chloroquine and Hydrooxychloroquine are notably toxic. It’s known to cause uncomplicated itching, irreversible eye and heart damage, allergic response, stomach troubles etc. It can even lead to death as low as 2 grams per day.

List of some herbal plants with Antiviral activity

There is a history of success with some herbs in traditional medicine for infectious disease. Some of these herbs have been confirmed in modern research, evaluated and reported to have strong antiviral activity, During the past few years, there have been numerous studies (both in vitro and in vivo) in different parts of the globe to evaluate the anti-viral activity of medicinal plants.

Here, I summarize few African herbal plants having medicinal properties with a variety of chemical constituents which have the ability;

A. to inhibit the replication cycle of various types of DNA or RNA viruses even in a sterile environment outside the body
B. ability of herbs in stimulating the body’s immune response to effectively fight off the virus.
1. Strophanthus gratus - Terponoids,sesquiterpene,teiterpenoids (ursolic acid, maslinic acid and saponin) found in Ghanaian plant Strophanthus gratus have been studied and reported to have membrane mediated mechanism of action inhibiting viral DNA systhesis. It’s also one of the best herbs known to boost the immune system of the body. Since it’s rich in Vitamin C, it helps raise the body's resistance to flu and other viruses.
2. Azadiractca indica (neem) has traditionally been used as an antiviral and the leaf extract was found to be active against a number of virus such as smallpox (DNA), poxvirus (DNA), chicken pox (DNA), poliomyelitis (RNA) and herpes virus in animal and laboratory research (DNA).
3. Allium sativum (Garlic )- Garlic antiviral effects have been well studied. It contains many antiviral compounds which are effective against cold viruses, herpes simplex types 1 and 2, para-influenza virus type 3 etc. Garlic has natural antiviral, antibacterial, and immune?boosting properties as well as possessing some anti-inflammatory properties
4. Phyllanthus amarus- Aqueous extract showing strong antiviral activity of this plant have also been well studied. In recent years substantial progress on chemical and pharmacological properties, as well as few clinical studies of Phyllanthus amarus have been made.
5. Psidium guajava (Guava.)The plant has been extensively studied in terms of pharmacological activity of its major components, and the results indicate potent anti-viral activities.
6. Artemisia annua (Chinese wormwood)
7. Hibiscus tea ( Sobolo)- Studies show that hibiscus tea extracts contains potent antiviral properties like anthocyanins which help fight not only cold and flu but also effective in fighting other viral infections such as influenza and SARS CoV1
8. Ocimum basilicum-
9. Plumbago zeylani
10. Licorice


Further human studies are still needed to establish the exact mechanism of action of these plants. There is some evidence to prove that they inhibit viral replication, and so minimizes the impact of viral infections. Again, these plants can serve as a source of promising future antiviral drugs. Since the gene sequence of COVID-19 has been reported to having high similarities between the main proteins same as in SARS and MERS and herbal remedies having played an important role in those epidemics, herbal medicine should become a valuable guide to finding cure for COVIDTraditional medicine has much to offer global health. Crude plant extracts contain diversity of constituents that may exert their antiviral effect either singularly or in concert with each other.

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