Herbs Give Kenyan AIDS Patients New Hopes

Traditional medicine has been the source of cure for many ailments that afflict communities in Kenya
Traditional medicine has been the source of cure for many ailments that afflict communities in Kenya
Traditional medicine, mostly derived from herbs, has been the source of cure for many ailments that afflict communities in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa; a scenario that is prevalent in most developing countries across the globe. However, the advent of colonialism and the subsequent introduction of ‘modern medicine’ exposed traditional healers to ridicule and stiff competition, as their medicine was considered unscientific and themselves backward.

This has been the trend in Kenya for over a century since the introduction of Western medicine and hospitals. Despite the onslaught from conventional medicine, however, traditional healers never abandoned their practice en masse. Knowledge, which has always been passed from one generation to another and kept as a family secret, thrived on.And now, what was once bequeathed to posterity by forefathers has recently found application with the unprecedented resurgence of interest in herbal cures.

Filling the Void

The increase in AIDS-related ailments and the high cost of medicine sourced from multinational firms has played a pivotal role in bringing about this new focus on herbal medicine.

The Kenyan government, like most governments in developing countries, is unable to provide life-prolonging AIDS drugs to the more than two million AIDS patients in the country. Further still, the anti-retrovirals available cost a dollar per day, far beyond the incomes of most AIDS sufferers, who live on less than a dollar a day. Local scientists have therefore been compelled to explore traditional knowledge and conduct scientific research on medicinal plants.

A Renaissance

Perhaps taking the cue from herbal medicine practitioners, the government in its bid to stem off the AIDS scourge, estimated to be decimating the population at the rate of 700 people a day, is encouraging research on possible herbal cures that can counter the diseases.

Currently it is funding a three-year research project on alternative medicine through the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, KEFRI, in conjunction with the Kenya National AIDS Control Council-KNACC and other stakeholders. There is a variety of medicinal plants which local researchers believe offer remedies for various ailments, but emphasis is being placed on a recently identified local herb that can be used in the clinical management of HIV/AIDS.

The herb’s efficacy was realized in the first institutional study carried out by Moi University in Eldoret, Western Kenya, by researchers in collaboration with a renowned herbalist in the region, Job Keitany. The herb was patented last year by the World Intellectual Service Office in Geneva to save it from privateers who may wish to profit from it. Keitany told participants in an International Congress on Health and Herbal Medicine held in Nairobi early this year that the drug’s name will remain secret until all the paper work is finished.

Moi University’s Dr. Paul Kiptoon and Dr. Simon Mining, the head of the Immunology Department, led the study.

Raising Eyebrows

The increase in AIDS-related ailments and the high cost of medicine has encouraged a new focus on herbal medicine

The herb has attracted attention in Nairobi and the second phase will involve top HIV researcher in East Africa, Professor George N. Lule.

This is the first major study on a herbal drug and its aim is to determine the effects of a selected herb in the clinical management of seropositive patients. So far, 20 patients of the 300 treated with the herbal drug have been reviewed.

“Before treatment, seven patients were in poor clinical state. Of these, six changed to good clinical state after treatment giving approximately 86 per cent improvement,” says the study.

“Only one patient did not improve clinically after treatment but has shown dramatic CD4 T- cell count increase,” the study continues.

The study conducted in the western Kenyan town of Eldoret, is set to enter the next phase, which will involve follow-up of the patients who have completed treatment to determine their long-term outcome; an activity that will incorporate other researchers at the University of Nairobi, where a large group of volunteers will be involved.

“The dramatic increment in CD4 cell count in nearly 100 percent of the patients strongly suggests that the herbal medicine is very effective in restoring patients’ immunity in HIV/AIDS infections. The fact that those changes are highly significant confirms this position,” says the study.No conclusive findings have been made on its side effects.

A Ray of Optimism

Kenya’s Health Minister Charity Ngilu says that the herb will help in the fight against the AIDS scourge. She says given that 95 percent of new HIV infections are occurring in developing countries with 70 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, the use of the herb is welcome.

It has also emerged that 80 percent of the population in Africa depend on herbal medicine, which calls for more efforts in the research of the herbal medicine. “We need an urgent solution to the HIV/AIDS scourge since HIV infection is continuing despite preventive measures, which clearly indicate the big gap existing between knowledge and behavioral change,” says Ngilu.

The number of HIV positive people in Kenya is expected to increase from 2.2 million to 2.6 million by the year 2005.

The cumulative AIDS deaths are also expected to rise from 1.5 million to 2.6 million. At the same time, AIDS orphans will rise from 900,000 to 1.5 million by the same year.

Herbs Could Be the Answer

Ngilu argues that since the majority (70 percent) of new HIV infections in the world continue to occur in Africa, there is a need for special efforts to support the development of an HIV vaccine/cure relevant to Africans in the shortest possible period.

“The solution to AIDS lies in the herbs. What we need is political support for the success of any HIV vaccine development,” says Ngilu.

She says that the government can do this by providing an enabling environment for researchers, their collaborators and funding agencies as they pursue a cure for AIDS. Further research and proper regulation is vital as unregulated or inappropriate use of herbal medicine can have side effects on patients.

Her opinion was buttressed by an announcement made by traditional healers attending an International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Africa, ICASA, held in Nairobi in September 2003 that a group of traditional healers in Senegal have developed a drug for the treatment of AIDS-related opportunistic diseases, called Metraf-AIDS, in collaboration with Prometra International, an international organization involved in the research and manufacture of herbal cures.

Speaking at the ICASA conference, Mr. Ercik Gbdodossu of Prometra said his organization endeavors to supply it to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Accessible Alternative

The neem tree has both pesticidal and medicinal properties

In Kenya, traditional medicine practice is deeply rooted and widespread, more so in rural areas. Many plants are used due to their efficacy on various ailments. According to Dr. Anthony Mwongo, a Kenyan who is also the chairman of the Eastern and Central Africa Herbalists Association, 10 prime medicinal plants are being used in the country for treatment and management of over 100 diseases including HIV/AIDS-related infections.

For instance, the use of the neem tree, Azadirachta indica, and Aloe Vera, which have adapted themselves to all ecological zones of the country, is a common phenomenon.

Owing to their widespread use, organizations involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the country are also promoting their utilization. For instance, the German Development Agency, GTZ, under its Multisectoral Initiative on fighting the AIDS scourge in the country has been sensitizing the public to their medicinal value and sustainable usage.

The neem known in Swahili as Mwarobaini, loosely translated to “a cure for 40 ailments”, is an evergreen tropical plant, which originated from India, but grows in all parts of Kenya and almost everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The neem tree has both pesticidal and medicinal properties. It has immuno-stimulating properties for both lymphocytic and cell mediated immune systems.

According to the findings of the Nairobi based Kenya Neem Foundation and Makini Herbs and Research Centre, who are leading providers of alternative medicine in East Africa, ingesting small quantities of neem leaf or bark powder every other day or drinking neem tea will enhance antibody production and the body’s cell-mediated immune response, thus helping to prevent opportunistic infections among AIDS patients.

High Potency

Kenya has almost two million people living with AIDS. It is no wonder therefore that organizations of people living with AIDS are championing the use of neem products to ensure that their members (a large number of them being widows) earn a living by selling these products. They also endeavor to ensure that members have access to affordable therapies for opportunistic diseases.

Most of these organizations are involved in the production of neem oil, soaps, toothbrushes and other products.

These products are used in the cure of opportunistic diseases that afflict people living with AIDS.

Research carried out by the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICIPE) indicates that the application of a cream containing neem oil reduces inflammation of the skin. In fact, the organization is already producing neem cream at its Nairobi headquarters for treatment of bacterial and fungal skin ailments.

On High Demand

On the other hand, Aloe Vera, which is turning into a global money-spinner, grows wild in many parts of Kenya. Valued the world over for its natural healing abilities, as a food supplement and in the cosmetic industry, the plant is attracting a lot of attention.

Its over 50 species have adapted themselves in Kenya’s arid and semi arid regions.

Aloe is listed under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) for protection.

Kenya being an agricultural-based economy, regulated farming and export of Aloe Vera could boost the economy. The challenge is protecting it from over exploitation.

A Food Supplement

Aloe vera is credited for rejuvenating weary nerves and cells and buttressing the immune system against a wide array of diseases

According to Herbal International, a South African based organization which manufacturers aloe products for both nutritional and medicinal purposes, food supplements produced from Aloe Vera are credited for rejuvenating weary nerves and cells, cleansing impurities resulting from body metabolism, and buttressing the immune system against a wide array of diseases. It is thus claimed to be ideal for AIDS sufferers.

Herbal International manufactures Aloe products for use in the treatment of various skin conditions from insect bites, sunburn, acne, boil and fungal attacks. These products are sold all over Southern and Eastern Africa.

Other roles of the Aloe Vera identified by Herbal International and other stakeholders involved in identifying the nutritional and curative abilities include:

Stimulation: It stimulates the renewal and growth of new tissues at the cellular level and accelerates the healing process.

Detoxification: Cleanses and detoxifies the digestive system, boosting the body’s immune system and healing abilities.

Anti-inflammatory: Natural treatment for swellings and tissue injuries.

Nutrition: Contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals that are vital to various functions of the body.

Kenya is a substantial supplier of the global Aloe trade but little is understood about the extent of its contribution value. With the rise in global demand, suppliers of the raw material continue to scour the length and the breadth of country to look for the naturally growing Aloe.

Justus Bahati Wanzala is a freelance writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Development Studies at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

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