Africa Unlocks Herbal Secrets to Fight AIDS
April 1, 2002
Stalking into the bush with a knife and briefcase in search of asparagus, the 56-year-old Kenyan healer Jack Githae symbolizes a growing belief among African herbalists that ancient wisdom could turn the tide of HIV/AIDS. "How can we ignore such knowledge when people are dying like flies?" asked Githae.
Traditional healers across the continent say their remedies offer a huge potential to fight diseases like TB and pneumonia in HIV patients, but accuse governments and doctors of spurning their offers of help. With an estimated 28.1 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS, healers say even the most skeptical Western-trained doctors need all the help they can get.
For centuries, African healers have used plants to treat illnesses like diarrhea and lung infections. These often attack immune systems shattered by HIV, and they are frequently the cause of death for AIDS patients. Herbalists argue that their pills and potions are cheap, available in remote areas, and effective. Githae charges 250 shillings ($3.20) a week for a concoction that he says boosts HIV patients' immune level. Pharmacies charge at least six times that much for an equivalent duration of antiviral drugs.
The World Health Organization says 80 percent of people rely on herbs in countries from South Africa to Ethiopia. Serge Eholie, deputy clinic head at the infectious and tropical disease unit of the Treichville hospital in Ivory Coast, said the main problem was that herbal lore passed on by ancestors was seldom researched and documented. Treichville researchers who analyzed an herb billed last January as a cure for AIDS said they found no evidence that it worked.
Governments have given herbalists a mixed reception. "There's no council, no legislation and no policy on traditional healers," said Dorothy Balaba, director of Traditional and Modern Health Practitioners Together Against AIDS and Other Diseases. Kenya said this year that a task force had been set up to prepare a bill to integrate herbal medicine into the formal health care system, but the Kenya Medical Association warned it could cause chaos. Andrew Kita, director general of Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research, echoed that fear: "We must legalize something on the basis of evidence. Science has to lead us."
03.24.02; Matthew Green
This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.