Jansie Niehaus
Jansie Niehaus

Let’s not undervalue Africa’s plants in Covid-19 battle

By Jansie Niehaus Time of article published Jul 13, 2020

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Cape Town - South Africa has entered a perilous phase in the unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic, with infections and deaths increasing at a dramatic rate. In the Eastern Cape, hospitals are overrun and mortuaries are struggling to keep up. And worse is still to come, as the pandemic gains pace in other provinces and the decades-long neglect of the country's health care system bears its bitter fruit.

For once, the most fortunate may be those living in deep rural areas, where the curse of isolation has become a blessing. But this too remains to be seen, given not only the neglect of health care in rural areas, but also the inadequate water supply and shortage of ambulances and transport in general.

There is as yet neither a cure nor a vaccine against Covid-19. As the World Health Organization (WHO) states: “While several drug trials are ongoing, there is currently no proof that hydroxychloroquine or any other drug can cure or prevent Covid-19.”

The only breakthrough to date has been the discovery by scientists in the UK that dexamethasone, a corticosteroid used to treat a range of conditions, can reduce deaths among ventilator patients with Covid-19. This means that, apart from hospitalisation in the severest cases, for most people who contract Covid-19 the only possible treatment is symptomatic. What can the thousands of South Africans with flu-like symptoms - for many of whom over-the-counter medicines are unaffordable or unavailable - take for effective symptomatic relief?

To address this question, I turned to my copy of People’s Plants - a guide to useful plants of southern Africa by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke (2018). Here I found a plethora of traditional remedies for the flu and related ailments.

These include, among others: 1) Adansonia digitata, also called baobab or kremetartboom (Afrikaans) - The fruit pulp is used to treat fever and diarrhoea, and is rich in Vitamin C. 2) Cannabis sativa, marijuana, dagga (Afrikaans), umya (isiXhosa), matokwane (Sesotho) or nsangu (isiZulu) - Still controversial, but well-established as a traditional medicine. Weak hot water infusions are used for asthma, bronchitis, headache, migraine, pain, colds, flu and coughs. In modern medicine, the plant and its extracts, and isolated cannabinoids, are used to treat extreme pain, nausea caused by chemotherapy, and to improve appetite in cancer patients. 3) Capparis tomentosa or woolly caper bush - A very popular traditional medicine in southern Africa. Used for headache, coughs, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.

People’s Plants includes traditional tonics that reportedly strengthen immunity. My focus, however, was strictly on medicinal plants - in particular, on plants that can reportedly be used for the relief of fever, coughs, sore throat, diarrhoea, asthma, pneumonia and tuberculosis. I discounted those remedies that require one to inhale the smoke of plants, as anything thus smoked is harmful to the lungs.

While none of these medicines will cure a viral infection, generations of South Africans have turned to them for symptomatic relief. For Covid-19 sufferers, it may be worth trying those remedies that have undergone safety tests.

My main aim in compiling this list was to highlight some of the country's indigenous plants that could be scientifically studied for their chemical effects in the treatment of diseases. Such studies could lead to commercialisable products, as has been the case with a number of traditional treatments.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has long been aware of South Africa’s wealth of biodiversity and rich history of herbal remedies, and concerned about the erosion of the country's traditional knowledge. To address this, the DSI established an indigenous knowledge management system, invested in research and development of traditional herbal products, and identified biotechnology as a strategic focus area.

The Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre was established at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to translate biomanufacturing concepts and technologies into market-ready products and services. Various products and spin-off companies have resulted from this, demonstrating what South Africa could achieve by studying promising indigenous plants for development into innovative products, symptomatic treatments, and possibly life-saving drugs.

There is growing interest in African medicinal plants among both scientists and pharmaceutical companies on the lookout for new substances for potential commercialisation. While no plant compound from southern Africa has yet been turned into a marketed drug, a few phytopharmaceuticals have been developed or are in the process of being developed.

More than ever, there is huge potential for innovation in this field, and the DSI’s initiatives are worthy of support, from the private as well as the public sector.

People’s Plants notes that traditional African medicines are seldom used in isolation, but co-exist with other medicinal groups and practices, including Western allopathic medicine. This was recently demonstrated by sangoma (traditional healer) Gcinani Bango. When Bango tested positive for Covid-19, he consulted a medical doctor and was admitted to hospital, where he fortunately recovered within a few days. Bango is now intent on educating others about Covid-19, and believes there should be more co-operation between the government and traditional health practitioners to overcome the pandemic.

People’s Plants also notes that traditional medicine, unlike “reductionist” Western science, values not only the chemical effects of medicines but also their symbolic and spiritual aspects. Van Wyk and Gericke believe that “unifying therapeutic principles” will ultimately bring the various medicinal practices closer together.

I personally hope that South Africa’s people will find solace and relief at this time in the country’s rich diversity of beliefs, rituals, and traditional treatments of disease.

Niehaus is the Executive Director of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF). She writes in her personal capacity, and the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the executive committee or members of the NSTF.

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