Sarah Auma was distraught when her three-year-old toddler’s legs and hands were scalded by hot water two months ago. The scalding was so bad,the skin peeled off.
After getting treatment in a hospital, her baby’s limbs were left with scars. A neighbour 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 is considered fish waste. 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.
In the studies, skin from tilapia was found to have moisture, collagen and disease resistance at levels comparable to human skin and could 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 a new treatment for severe burns, which eases pain and cuts 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. For patients, I 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 the pattern left intact. The collagen is extracted using steaming apparatus and two hours of exacting pressure.
“I don’t add anything to the collagen,. It is even more effective when used in raw form, where the skin is wrapped around a burnt part of the body,” explains Owino, who has little competition in Kisumu County despite fish skin treatment being used in hospitals around the world.
More research revealed that using fish skin in burn treatment could reduce hospital costs by up to 60 per cent. During the studies, 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 stretchability 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 sterilising 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.”