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Yes, we must lock quacks out of herbal medicine industry

By | Published Sat, December 12th 2009 at 00:00, Updated Sat, December 12th 2009 at 00:00 GMT +3

Njoki Ndungu

A critically timely Motion that seeks to regulate the trade and practice of herbal medicine was passed in Parliament this week. Sponsored by Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo, the Motion is asking the Government to establish a policy and legal framework for the herbal pharmaceutical industry. It seeks the creation of relevant institutions and regulatory bodies to oversee standards and ensure ethical practices for the multi-million shilling trade.

Herbal medicine is also used to describe alternative medicine including healing treatments that are not part of conventional medical training — like acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and osteopathy, massage therapy, ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine or herbal medicine and practices outside the mainstream.

Big Business

I consider the Motion urgent and long overdue. Trade in herbal medicine is big business in the country and indeed all over the world with an estimated global value of $60 billion (about Sh4.6 trillion). Traditional medicine is used by at least 60 per cent of Kenyans as a primary health care largely due to widespread poverty that prices conventional medicine beyond ordinary citizens. Herbal medicine is also favoured by cultural and historical faith for its efficacy which explains its preference over modern medicine even among the elite.

Yet as Gumbo rightly pointed out when moving the Motion, there is scant regulatory framework for the herbal industry. The registration of herbal medical practitioners, for instance, is under the Ministry of Gender and Social Services. Needless to say, for obvious lack of capacity on matters of health, it is unreasonable to expect it to identify, expose and to suitably punish quacks out to take advantage of gullible, sickly and poor Kenyans.

Currently, the only persons barred from practicing herbal medicine are witches under the Witchcraft Act CAP 67. Yet as the name implies, herbal medicine regulation should sensibly be under whichever of the two ministries related to health (Public Health or Medical Services.) To expect this function to be efficiently discharged by a Ministry that lumps herbal practitioners together with women’s groups and other community based-groups is simply absurd.

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As Saboti MP Eugene Wamalwa noted when seconding the Motion, herbal medicine needs to be monitored by approved professionals to set acceptable standards. There is need for a policy and legal framework to determine dosage, packaging, hygiene, qualifications of practitioners, research into side effects, monitoring of efficacy and success of these medicines.

Despite its widespread use, unregulated traditional medicine remains high risk in its practice. As a consequence, it has become extremely important to bring them at par with conventional medicine that enjoys clear registration and testing by established professional bodies.

Matter of faith

By contrast, most herbal products being traded today are a matter of faith. Their advertisements make promises that are almost impossible to medically verify or that defy science and logic. A typical estate street ad will read something like, "Come to Dawa Poa Herbalist. Specialists in medicine for asthma, cancer, TB, HIV/Aids, STIs, madness, male impotence, small male organs, infertility, women problems, unfaithful spouses, joblessness, getting rich, jealous neighbours, old age etc. We are at Duka No.312."

In reality, this is a criminal offence. The Public Health Act explicitly outlaws such advertisements: "No person shall publish any advertisement or statement intended to promote the sale of any medicine, appliance or article for the alleviation or cure of any venereal disease or disease affecting the generative organs or functions, or of sexual impotence, or of any complaint or infirmity arising from or relating to sexual intercourse. Any person who publishes any such advertisement or statement by printing it in any newspaper or exhibiting it to public view , shall be guilty of an offence." Yet, I know of no one who has been arrested or charged with such an offence.

Ideally, herbal medicine regulation should extend to alternative cosmetic beauty treatments that involve toxins or drugs. Creative marketing that, for instance, claims to offer smooth soft skins to women make them extremely alluring to unwitting buyers. Yet as in the case of other herbal medicines, these claims have not been subjected to critical medical analyses. The buyer has no information on the ingredients, how they have been prepared and the involved quantities and potential effects. Often, their harmful effect comes too late and in costly manifestations to the user.

Herbal medicines may however not always comprise primary health care. Many have genuine claims to secondary and complex therapies. There is therefore need to integrate them properly into the health care system, including guidelines and qualifications on appropriate training.

It should not, as it surely is today, be anyone’s job. Credible regulation would also ease the registration of patents and trademarks for authentic products.

It seeks the creation of relevant institutions and regulatory bodies to oversee standards and ensure ethical practices for the multi-million shilling trade.

Herbal medicine is also used to describe alternative medicine including healing treatments that are not part of conventional medical training — like acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and osteopathy, massage therapy, ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine or herbal medicine and practices outside the mainstream.

Big Business

I consider the Motion urgent and long overdue. Trade in herbal medicine is big business in the country and indeed all over the world with an estimated global value of $60 billion (about Sh4.6 trillion). Traditional medicine is used by at least 60 per cent of Kenyans as a primary health care largely due to widespread poverty that prices conventional medicine beyond ordinary citizens. Herbal medicine is also favoured by cultural and historical faith for its efficacy which explains its preference over modern medicine even among the elite.

Yet as Gumbo rightly pointed out when moving the Motion, there is scant regulatory framework for the herbal industry. The registration of herbal medical practitioners, for instance, is under the Ministry of Gender and Social Services. Needless to say, for obvious lack of capacity on matters of health, it is unreasonable to expect it to identify, expose and to suitably punish quacks out to take advantage of gullible, sickly and poor Kenyans.

Currently, the only persons barred from practicing herbal medicine are witches under the Witchcraft Act CAP 67. Yet as the name implies, herbal medicine regulation should sensibly be under whichever of the two ministries related to health (Public Health or Medical Services.) To expect this function to be efficiently discharged by a Ministry that lumps herbal practitioners together with women’s groups and other community based-groups is simply absurd.

As Saboti MP Eugene Wamalwa noted when seconding the Motion, herbal medicine needs to be monitored by approved professionals to set acceptable standards. There is need for a policy and legal framework to determine dosage, packaging, hygiene, qualifications of practitioners, research into side effects, monitoring of efficacy and success of these medicines.

Despite its widespread use, unregulated traditional medicine remains high risk in its practice. As a consequence, it has become extremely important to bring them at par with conventional medicine that enjoys clear registration and testing by established professional bodies.

Matter of faith

By contrast, most herbal products being traded today are a matter of faith. Their advertisements make promises that are almost impossible to medically verify or that defy science and logic. A typical estate street ad will read something like, "Come to Dawa Poa Herbalist. Specialists in medicine for asthma, cancer, TB, HIV/Aids, STIs, madness, male impotence, small male organs, infertility, women problems, unfaithful spouses, joblessness, getting rich, jealous neighbours, old age etc. We are at Duka No.312."

In reality, this is a criminal offence. The Public Health Act explicitly outlaws such advertisements: "No person shall publish any advertisement or statement intended to promote the sale of any medicine, appliance or article for the alleviation or cure of any venereal disease or disease affecting the generative organs or functions, or of sexual impotence, or of any complaint or infirmity arising from or relating to sexual intercourse. Any person who publishes any such advertisement or statement by printing it in any newspaper or exhibiting it to public view , shall be guilty of an offence." Yet, I know of no one who has been arrested or charged with such an offence.

Ideally, herbal medicine regulation should extend to alternative cosmetic beauty treatments that involve toxins or drugs. Creative marketing that, for instance, claims to offer smooth soft skins to women make them extremely alluring to unwitting buyers. Yet as in the case of other herbal medicines, these claims have not been subjected to critical medical analyses. The buyer has no information on the ingredients, how they have been prepared and the involved quantities and potential effects. Often, their harmful effect comes too late and in costly manifestations to the user.

Herbal medicines may however not always comprise primary health care. Many have genuine claims to secondary and complex therapies. There is therefore need to integrate them properly into the health care system, including guidelines and qualifications on appropriate training.

It should not, as it surely is today, be anyone’s job. Credible regulation would also ease the registration of patents and trademarks for authentic products.

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