From plants like lantana believed to repel mosquitoes to aloe vera which is used for skin conditions and digestive disorders, the use of traditional medicine is diverse.
However, many people have not welcomed the idea despite the fact that a majority of prescription drugs are derived from plants.
For example, hydroxychloroquine once used as a malaria drug and in arthritis patients comes from the cinchona tree. Artemisinin, which is used to treat malaria, is from the quinghao plant.
“Traditional medicine is more accepted than modern, especially in rural communities. It is healthcare workers who have reservations about it,” says Ronald Inyangala, director Product Evaluation and Registration, Pharmacy and Poisons Board.
Dr Inyangala notes that countries like China have already incorporated herbal remedies in their practice.
“The challenge we have is diagnosis. Prescription of herbal medicine should be done based on tests. Herbalists should be trained on how to diagnose and determine which test patients should take before they are put on any medication,” he says.
Quality control is also a necessity that should cover how the drugs are prepared, the ingredients, shelf life, and such.
Lack of standards
“There is a lot of wastage in how the medicines are prepared so capacity lacks in the area. In China, for example, we have college for herbalists and medical students are also trained on herbal remedies,” he notes.
Dr Daniella Munene, a pharmacist and the Chief Executive Officer of the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya, notes that just by the fact that most drugs come from plants, traditional medicine should be at par with modern medicine.
The problem, she said, is the lack of standards in traditional medicine hence doctors cannot authoritatively prescribe, even when it is known that some plants have some efficacy in some illnesses like high blood pressure.
“Standards are critical for us (doctors) to have confidence in the products,” she said.
Most herbal medicines, however, do not indicate the ingredients, the expiry date or the exact disease it is expected to treat.
Munene said traditional and modern medicine can work together for the benefit of the patient if standards are implemented and adopted by all herbalists.
“Once we know what exactly is in the powder (or liquid), then we will be able to advise a patient not to mix the herbal therapy with what the doctor has prescribed because it may for example cause blood clots,” she said.
These standards can only be made available if the Ministry of Health finalises the policy document on traditional medicine.
The challenge, however, is that while the medicine is under the Ministry of Health, herbalists are under the Ministry of Sports and Culture, their practice governed by the Witchcraft Act of 1925.
“When we talk about traditional medicine, it has nothing to do with the supernatural but herbal. The ministry can only help us with history because there is a lot of knowledge from herbalists that is not documented; but all issues medicine should be under the Ministry of Health,” said Munene.