How con herbalists con Kenyans

By Amos Kareithi

The acrid stench from a toilet serves as the welcome for visitors into the clinic’s premises overlooking a busy street in Nairobi.

Dr Jack Githae, the World Health Organisation country representative in Traditional and Alternative Medicine, displays genuine herbal drugs prepared from various plants. He says the trade needs to be regulated to do away with quacks. Photo: Ann Kamoni/Standard

As the glum faced woman clears the last staircase, she is welcomed by an unsmiling receptionist who mouths off her demands even before the patient has regained her breath.

"If this is your first visit, you will have to pay Sh500 for consultation. Then you must pay Sh3,900 for laboratory tests," announces the unsmiling girl. Wheezing, the visitor pleads that she has only Sh4,000. The receptionist consults a ‘doctor’ from a hidden cubicle.

"The doctor has agreed. But you will have to look for more money for drugs," she says furiously scribbling the patient’s data in the dog-eared book.

She directs the patient to a man sitting at the opening of a corridor before being guided to a doctor who asks her about the ailment.

The next stop is to a tiny room where another worker announces she is looking for 20 diseases in the woman’s blood sample as she pierces her with a needle.

No gloves are used or any kind of counselling offered even though HIV/ Aids is among the 20 diseases under investigation.

The green gold

Every other sentence in this clinic is punctuated with the word money. On the clinic’s wall, patients are cajoled thus: "Our lab tests would cost Sh61,000 in some other places because they are single tests. We charge only Sh3,900 to test over 20 diseases in a special way to investigate causes and source of diseases." Two hours after the tests, the patient comes for her results.

This is Nairobi where herbal ‘doctors’ have been set loose on sickly Kenyans. It has taken CCI weeks to penetrate the murky workings of the herbal practitioners, which is one of Kenya’s biggest con game.

Dubbed the green gold, the herbal and alternative medicine sub-sector has become so alluring that university lecturers, primary school teachers, home guards and illiterate goatherds are finding it irresistible to join the trade masquerading as doctors.

Governed by no laws or code of ethics and requiring no qualifications, it is survival for the fittest for practitioners as the profiteering con artists sacrifice the lives of desperately ill Kenyans by promising heaven.

At the clinic, where I am also a patient, I am shepherded into a dingy examination room. A young woman fires a series of questions. I hastily manufacture a series of complaints.

"I am feeling weak, I have been suffering from low libido and general body malaise and stomach upsets," I tell the doctor.

From the examination room I am taken into a tiny room, which serves as a clerical officer’s station and a laboratory. Its door is permanently ajar. After drawing my blood, she smears a drop of it on her glucometer. The rest is put in a small container, sealed and labelled. "We regard P24, Elsa and Western blood blot (For testing HIV/Aids) as unnecessary and subject to errors," a notice in the herbal clinic draws my attention.

On the waiting queue is a 58-year-old woman. For the last seven years she has been a regular visitor in this clinic.

"My desire is to get healed. I hope that my fibroids will disappear and I can finally get a child. That is all I pray for," she whispers to a friend. A source in the clinic whispers that the woman has spent a fortune in trying to reverse her medical condition using herbs.

This patient is one of the many who flock the over 20 clinics owned by this herbal doctor who has transformed home guards, primary school drop outs and retired teachers into ‘medical doctors’.

After paying Sh4,400 to be examined, it comes as a shock to learn that to secure drugs, I must part with an extra Sh35,000.

After being diagnosed with typhoid, low libido and vitamin C deficiency, I am given a half dose of a mixture of herbal and what looks like conventional drugs.

To secure medication, I am asked to pay Sh35,000.

"The prescription is uniform whether you are suffering from a broken limb, ulcers, typhoid, malaria, fibroids or even HIV/Aids," a source in the herbal industry reveals.

"These people are very superficial. They buy laboratory equipment and sometimes recruit educated people to work for them but offer no credible treatment," says Dr Jack Githae, the World Health Organisation (WHO) country’s representative for Traditional and Alternative Medicine.

Githae, a graduate of New Mexico State University where he studied Animal Science and a former lecturer at Egerton University who has been a herbalist for over 20 years, and is scandalised by the quacks.

Use of the media

Majority of the herbalist’s laboratories are not registered and are mostly operated by quacks just to give them a faÁade of scientific practice and credibility.

The herbalists have ventured into the media to entice customers. They buy advertising space in newspapers and airtime in radio and television stations to advertise their services where they promise miraculous cures.

Sources told CCI that some herbalists are buying prescription drugs, unpacking them and then repackaging them as herbal drugs.The herbalists are alleged to have a pact with some pharmaceutical companies, which secretly sell them the drugs.

But why are Kenyans so desperate thus becoming an easy target for bogus herbalists?

"Most of the patients who come to us are terminal cases and that is why they are ready to believe in anything," Githae explains.

Genuine herbalists, Githae adds, do not advertise their services but they are now being hounded out of business by the money hungry quacks.

Conventional doctors too are outraged by the rip off.

"When I hear these advertisements, I am saddened by their falsehoods. They claim to cure incurable ailments such as cancer, HIV/ Aids and fibroids," says Dr Mwangi Watene, Kenya Medical Association’s public health convener.

The doctor is unhappy with TV stations which have allowed the quacks to broadcast lies without checking the facts.

"How can somebody be allowed to cheat that milk and meat transmit HIV/Aids? This is misleading. They are using deceit to make millions," he says.

Dangerous side-effects

Watene says the herbal products too have side effects thus debunking arguments by herbalists that they are natural and therefore have no side effects.

"Herbal medicine are supposed to be very cheap but they have been commercialised and very soon will be out of reach for the poor," Githae complains.

Lack of policy or law to regulate the herbalist has created a lacuna, which is being exploited by the quacks to make millions at the expense of the dying.

Dr Stephen Kimatu of Pharmacy and Poisons Board says that so far no herbal products have been licensed.

"We have received herbal products by applicants claiming they can cure even HIV/ Aids but they have no supporting data to validate the claims so we reject them," he explains. Kimatu says the board only controls products not practice and, therefore, there is nothing they can do to reign on the illegal herbal clinics.

"Last December, I know of four cases where people died after they used herbal sex enhancing drugs. The trend is worrying and something needs to be done," Dr Lumbi M’Nabea, a Nairobi based pharmacist says. The pharmacist warns that Kenyans are becoming resistant to drugs after being exposed to under dosing while others suffer from overdosing.

"Some of the rogue herbalists are buying drugs from pharmacists and then repackaging and administering them to their patients," M’Nabea says.

Geoffrey Mbijiwe, a herbalist, says: "We are all quacks. All herbalists are not recognised by the law. Even those who are genuine have no legal backing. This is very bad. There should be a legal guideline for all herbalists."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80 per cent of all Kenyans resort to herbal and traditional methods for their health needs.

"Kenya has about 9,000 herbalists according to WHO which estimates that there is one practitioner for every 4,000 people," Mbijiwe says. When challenged about their legality, the herbalists produce letters of recognition issued by the Ministry of Culture and Social Services. Some produce letters showing that their herbs have been validated by Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) for having medicinal value.

If the Government fails to regulate the herbal practitioners, Kenyans will continue to fall prey to the fraudsters.