Tilapia skin now treating burns


Tilapia. [Courtesy]

Sarah Auma’s three-year-old baby’s legs and hands were scalded two months ago. The skin there even peeled off. Neighbours advised her to visit a leather chemist’s workshop in Kajulu, Kisumu County.

Newton Owino, an environmentalist, is the man she met. He is known for extracting collagen from fish skin and converting it to a gel. She bought 100 grammes of the gel at Sh5,000. “After two weeks the baby was fine and back on her feet,” says Sarah.

Newton produces the gel for treating skin burns after steaming Tilapia skin, which are considered fish wastes. Only Tilapia and Nile Perch skins have medicinal properties to cure any degree of skin burns, according to a finding that began with studies at the Federal University of Ceara in Brazil in 2017.

Skin from Tilapia was found to have moisture, collagen and disease resistance at levels comparable to human skin and could thus aid in healing burns. It also prevented scarring and promoted healing after clinical trials found that tilapia skin was more effective than standard burn bandages.

The findings got researchers exploring the new treatment for severe burns, which not only eased pain but also cut medical costs.

Kisumu has abundant Tilapia, boosted by fish cage farming. Owino has not run short of material and clients since he started the trade in 2013. “Majority of them are medical doctors and patients who I give the gel and refer them to hospital for cleaning and proper care of the burns,” he says.

Owino says while burns heal in two weeks, Tilapia collagen heals wounds faster. “It speeds up healing by a few days and reduces the need for pain medication compared to Nile Perch which takes about a month.

The fish skin is processed with a patented method and sterilised before use, with scales removed, but pattern left intact. The collagen is extracted using steaming apparatus and two hours exacting pressure.

“In the collagen, I don’t add anything. It is even more effective when used in raw form, where the skin is wrapped at a burnt place on the body,” explains Owino, who has little competition in Kisumu County despite the fish skin treatment being used in hospitals around the world. 

When starting out, Owino engaged local women chang’aa brewers to help in steaming using their traditional distilling apparatus. “Many abandoned brewing chang’aa as they found steaming fish skin for medicinal value more income-generating.”

Owino later spent Sh65,000 on modern distilling apparatus and now controls the amount of pressure required to extract fish collagen, and from 15 burn clients a week he pockets Sh80,000 as profit from fish gel.

The fish skin is processed with a patented method and sterilised before use. [Courtesy]

More research revealed that using fish skin in burn treatment could reduce hospital costs by up to 60 per cent.

Fish skin gel not conventional medicine-medics

During the studies on using fish skins to treat burns, one of the major concerns was whether the skins would come off and if fish odour would remain, but preclinical studies found that fish skin had a higher resistance and greater stretch ability than pig skin.

And while Chinese researchers tested tilapia skin on rodents to study its healing properties, scientists in Brazil first used them on humans after treating the fish skin with sterilizing agents and later subjected to irradiation to kill viruses before packaging and refrigeration.

“Once cleaned and treated, it can last for up to two years,” the researchers said, adding that the treatment removes any fish smell.

However, in the medical trials, the alternative therapy was used on at least 56 patients to treat second-and third-degree burns, and a section of Kenyan medics said they had not used the fish skin gel, which they reckon would require further studies to prove its effectiveness.

Dr Sain Roop, a dermatologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi, said: “The remedy is not in the Pharmacy and Poisons Board formula in the country, and it is not a conventional medicine. More investigation must be carried out.”

Dr David Okeyo, the Medical Superintendent at Kombewa Hospital, said he was yet to try out the remedy on his patients and “more studies must be done for it to be prescribed in hospitals.”

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