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Opinions of Saturday, 9 May 2020

Columnist: Dr. Rudolph Mensah

Coronavirus: Time to go back to nature?

Traditional herbal medicines were the undisputed foundation for all standard medical, pharmacological and pharmacognostic textbooks prior to the 1800’s, before medicine entered the scientific age.

The 20th century ushered in the development of synthetization techniques and production of synthetic drugs, that’s when phytotherapy began falling out of popularity.

However, it was not until 1928, when Alexander Fleming discovered a bacteria-destroying mold which he would call penicillin, beginning the use of antibiotics in modern healthcare. Whilst the development of modern medicine has greatly influenced healthcare delivery, there is no denying the fact that conventional medicine alone doesn’t have all the answers to our healthcare needs.

In Ghana, although there are conventional medical treatments to manage several conditions, many patients have higher propensities to use complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) especially herbal medicines (Kretchy et al., 2014).

In the face of multiple drug resistance, and global pandemics such as COVID-19, the search for more efficacious and safe alternative medicines have increased with the scientific community turning their attention to the once considered offbeat plant medicines.

Plant medicine plays an important role in healthcare delivery, and this will continue into the foreseeable future.
Historically, it’s an undeniable fact that the production of drugs and the pharmacological treatment of diseases began with the use of herbs. Fact is, the word “drug” we use to denote medicinal products was derived from the old Dutch word “droog” which means “to dry”, because plants were dried prior to their use as medicines for various ailments.

Interestingly, the foundation for modern medical science basically depends on the drugs originally obtained from natural sources. Presently, about 40% of the conventional orthodox drugs are from plant sources. Plants also yield molecules used as lead compounds for the development of new medicines.
What’s more? Developing countries rely on herbal medicines as the key source of medicines for their healthcare needs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 6.16 billion, representing 80% of the world’s population, presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Without herbal medicine, WHO’s goal of “Health for All” strategic policy cannot be attained.

The table above highlights a few of the drugs used in modern medicine originating from plants. Several other compounds such as vincristine, taxol, vinblastine, etoposide and teniposide have all been brought into clinical use for the treatment of cancers. Some of the new bioactive drugs isolated from plants have showed more efficacy than synthetic agents used in clinical therapy.

Perchance, lurking among the forests of Ghana in the hidden treasures of plant medicine could be a cure for the treatment of the novel COVID-19 infection, the Ebola fever which plagued West Africa. Potentially, even the devastatingly deforming buruli ulcer and the terrible HIV/AIDS which remains incurable to date.

Hydroxychloroquine was first touted as an effective treatment until it was not and now Remdesivir has been approved by the USA FDA for use. This product didn’t actually work for Ebola, the trial was truncated midway. We are grasping straws here because there are no alternatives…but are we really out of alternatives or we are just refusing to acknowledge the role of herbal medicines?

Holistic and integrative healthcare requires the understanding that no one system of healthcare is well suited to cater for all our healthcare needs. Now more than ever, there is the need for a more robust integration of the two systems. \

Madagascar has recently produced and used an herbal remedy for the COVID-19 in their country. Reports indicate they are getting positive results and other African countries are starting to pay attention. Yet, there is the need to subject it to scientific study and approval which we have the resources to do. Ghana could have been operating on a similar tangent with all the herbal products and research institutions we have. In addition, Ghana is among the few countries in Africa who have trained professionals in the field of herbal medicine, this is the time to employ their expertise.

There is no denying the fact that plant medicine can be potentially toxic and thus quality control and standard of regulation are to be ensured in both the production of the products and the practice. Challenges abound with both systems, reports from the Remdesivir trials showed several side effects. We can’t ignore the challenges with both systems.

What we need now are interdisciplinary collaborative research programmes which are vital for the integrated development of herbal and orthodox medicines for better healthcare delivery, research and public health education.

“To be civilized and complete we must accept scientific enlightenment and our traditional heritage each in its proper place. Neglect of either is disastrous. Science without tradition can produce technicians but not cultured men; tradition without science can breed learned but not rational men.” – Cyrus Gordon (1968).

The world is in crisis and conventional medicine alone, as we know, doesn’t have all the answers.

Once again, we find ourselves in a quagmire, many times when we haven’t found solution in the synthetic lab, we have always gone back to nature. Perhaps, once again, it’s time to go back to nature.
Because nature always takes care of us best.

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