AS the end of the African Traditional Medicine decade approaches and as Africans, both home and in the Diaspora marked the seventh anniversary of the African Traditional Medicine Day last week, experts have assessed the challenges and successes recorded so far in Nigeria since the day was declared in 2001.
The decision to observe the day followed adoption by the region's health ministers, who requested the institution of the day on the World Health Organization (WHO) calendar for observance in member states, so as to promote the role of traditional medicine in the continents' healthcare system.
While the declaration of the decade was made in 2001, the celebration of the day did not begin until 2003, when Africans began to mark the day as special day in recognition by WHO.
The theme for this year's celebration was: Traditional Medicine and Patients Security.
President of Prometra International, Dr. Erick Gbodossou gave insight into the theme of this year's celebration. "Commitment calls for patients' security knowing that misusing a plant may lead to adverse effects on the human body. In fact, any plant may be unsafe because its therapeutic virtues are sometimes temporarily dependent on the collection system (time of the day and period of the year), in order to achieve the expected effect," he said.
For him, the patient's security in the use of traditional medicine has to do with removing charlatans from the system. Gbodossou said: "The security of the patient can be threatened by the administration of a remedy for profit sake, which is a characteristic of charlatanism. This is why, to guarantee patient's security, it is important to carry out a strong fight against prosperous charlatans who prevail mainly in modern African cities. Simultaneously, in parallel, the patient's security includes the need to stop the plundering of the therapeutic virtues of plants by pharmaceutical drug firms, who widen the field of use of a remedy originally codified to treat specific infections and deny intellectual property rights to holders of the indigenous knowledge."
He summarised the components of patients' security in African Traditional Medicine context to include "the development of an institutional legal framework; the setting up of a cartography of traditional medicines practices with an exhaustive list of traditional health practitioners involved in associations; the creation throughout the African continent of experimental centres for collaboration between both modern and traditional medicines and the development of scientific research on medicinal plants for wide-scale guaranteed use of their therapeutic values."
WHO estimates put it that 80 to 85 per cent of Africans, including Nigerians, depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare. And national statistics has it that between 60 to 70 per cent of Nigerians are delivered outside the orthodox clinics, by Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), a core component of African Traditional Medicine.
As the continent marked the day in grand style last week, experts in the country say that it is not yet hurray for traditional medicine practice in Nigeria.
Director General and Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), Mr. Taminoibuomi Okujagu noted that the country has made "a number of mile stones" in pursuance of the objectives of the African Traditional Medicine Day. According to the microbiologist, that the nation is making progress can be seen in the fact that the nation found it worthy to establish the agency, which is a parastatal under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, to research, develop, document, preserve and promote the nation's natural medicine, which has been explained to be "traditional or indigenous healthcare systems, medications and non-medications, healing arts, sciences and technologies."
Through the agency, the NNMDA boss noted that the nation has been able to develop pharmacopoeia, a book or database listing drug use in medical practice and describing their compositions, preparations, uses, dosages, effects and side effects. The fact that the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) "has put together criteria for listing traditional medicine", Okujagu said, is a progress in the right direction. And the nation currently has a Traditional Medicine Bill before the National Assembly. Once passed by the relevant authorities, the bill, he said: "Will regulate the practice and practitioners in such a way that it would facilitate the integration of traditional medicine into healthcare system."
Okujagu is of the view that the non- integration of traditional healthcare management boils down largely to "issues of misgivings about the practice and charlatans." According to him, although, "herbal medicine alone is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide, we are playing very little role in it."
The Chairman of Lagos State Traditional Medicine Board (LSTMB), Dr. Bunmi Omoseyinde is of the view that the nation's slow progress and little role in global natural medicine practice is as a result of strong resistance from orthodox medicine practitioners in the country.
"Hostility to the development of traditional medicine has been coming from the orthodox medical practitioners owing to their level of lack of understanding of what traditional medicine is supposed to be. Therefore, we still have this professional arrogance and parochialism. When the responsibility of controlling healthcare system has been placed in the hands of doctors, traditional medicine is sadly relegated to the background," he said.
Against the accusation by orthodox medical experts that traditional medicine often lack active ingredients and practitioners often use incantations in the process of administering it, the LSTMB chairman is quick to counter the accusations, explaining that all plants, which African traditional medicines are made from, contain active ingredients. But because of the issue of intellectual property, the practitioner, he said, is not bound to disclose the active ingredients in his herbal product. Incantation, which is often associated with the practice in rural areas, Omoseyinde said, is nothing more than memorizing the names and uses of certain herbs by illiterate rural practitioners.
For Omoseyinde who is a medical doctor, there is nothing esoteric about incantations. "Incantation comes about because our African history is oral history and we have to give it to our leaders, because they were not able to write and read. So, they memorise names of plants used for each occasion through the words of mouth. The line of incantation is talking about one or two things, for the traditional medicine practitioner to know what a plant is used for," he explained.
He noted that by not developing traditional medicine to its fullest height, the nation is missing greatly in terms of national development.
Omoseyinde said: "We have been losing lots of our economic values by neglecting our traditional medicine. If we have been able to develop our traditional medicine, the Tianshi, GNLD, Forever Living Products would not have penetrated us. But because there is a lot of market need for traditional medicine and because we have remained underdeveloped, they have been able to exploit that opportunity to penetrate us.
"But let's say we have been able to develop out traditional medicine, lots of job would have been created, all these shouts about unemployment would have been tackled one by one," he added.
He explained how this would have been made possible:
"First of all, we are going to involve the conservation of medicinal plants. In this process, we would need graduates that studied Botany, Pharmacology, and Pharmacognosy among others that have nothing to do and put them into proper perspective to go to the area of developing traditional medicine. We are going to talk about the packaging industry and the manufacturing sector.
"A traditional medicine products producing company I visited in China employed over 500,000 people. So, you can see the economic development that results from the promotion of traditional medicine," he further revealed.
Omoseyinde's greatest fear lies in the fact that if the nation does not develop traditional medicine system early enough, it may not be able to realise the much vaunted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), whose lifetime would elapse by the year 2015.
For Rev. Fr. Anselm Adodo of Paxherbals located in Ewu, Edo State, nothing has been achieved by the nation in the development of traditional medicine practice. He is sad to see that India and China are not only developing their traditional medicine, but have gone ahead to incorporate the practice into their healthcare system, while Nigeria is lagging behind.
Adodo said: "As we celebrate another traditional medicine day, it is indeed sad that nothing has been done on the part of government to actively develop and regulate the use and practice of traditional herbal medicine.
"It has been another year of wasteful spending on useless conferences, seminars and symposia, attended by heavily dressed 'professionals' who, apart from their Masters and Ph.D.s, have nothing else to show in the area of knowledge development and research.
It has been one more year of paying lip service to a venture whose income generating capacity can dwarf the billions accruing from the oil business."
Adodo lamented: "The Traditional Medicine Practice Bill is still pending as the National Assembly is busy making unimportant laws on how women should dress, and how constituency money should be spent. While countries of Europe, America and Asia have recorded huge turnovers from the sale of herbal medicine worldwide, Nigeria is still busy organizing conferences and seminars to educate her so-called professionals on the efficacy of herbal medicine.
"In India, they organize a yearly convention where medical doctors, pharmacists and ayurvedic practitioners do get together to discuss ways of moving forward in the healthcare arena. Ayurveda is synonymous with India and it involves a combination of prevention, treatment mostly with homeopathic medicine and lastly, surgical procedures. And practitioners of Ayurveda do command much respect throughout India, he revealed.
"Currently, China and India are earning so much money from producing herbal medicine to the rest of the world. So, one ought to ask: What in the world is wrong with us in Africa, specifically in Nigeria?" he queried.
For Joy Odimegwu, a Ph.D. researcher in the Department of Pharmacognosy, University of Lagos (UNILAG), the extinction of medicinal plants is a great threat to the development of traditional medicine in the country. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation award winner wants biotechnological methods to be used in preserving this African inheritance and a gene bank should be set up to preserve "industrial and medicinal plants in Africa." Otherwise, "we are in a great trouble", she said.
As the continent draws to the end of the African Traditional Medicine decade next year, it is hoped that Nigeria and other African countries will put everything into perspective, not only to integrate traditional medicine into the nations' healthcare system, but to also make it a multi-billion dollar generating business for the continent.