There is proliferation of herbal medicinal products which are being sold in the country as immune boosters and treatment for different diseases. These products, most of which originate from Asian countries, are promoted by well established local agents as well as many other briefcase traders.
Most often, customers of the products are converted into sellers who then receive a commission by doing so. Although this business continues to flourish, the lack of scientific evidence on the safety of some products has caused controversy in other countries.
Herbal products are medicines that contain plant materials as active ingredients. The 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on traditional medicine estimated that 80 percent of some Asian and African countries depend on traditional medicine for primary health care and herbal products are the most popular form of traditional medicine.
There is documented scientific evidence supporting the use of some plants in the treatment of specific disease conditions. For example Artemisia annua L., a plant used in China for many years, is a source of artemisinin, an essential component in WHOâ€™s recommended antimalarial, Lumefantrine/Artemether (LA).
Findings such as the above illustration have rendered credibility to the use of herbal products in many countries. However, the use of other herbs or herbal products is merely based on folkloric evidence without scientific substantiation on safety in human beings or whether the products are any better than placebo. This practice threatens the health of the users with some experiencing serious adverse effects. There are incidences reported in other countries which can be cited as examples.
The Forum for African Investigative Reporters (2008) reported that some Chinese vitamin products sold in Haiti, Panama and even United States of America contained high doses of diethelene glycol, an odourless colourless liquid with sweetish taste which caused kidney problems in human beings. In the same report, similar allegations were conveyed by Dr. Nazaire Nseka of University of Kinshasa Clinic in Democratic Republic of Congo, who also confirmed having treated Chinese product users who had developed kidney problems.
It is also reported that some unscrupulous traders produce fake herbal products with the intention of reaping profits from desperate customers. Just recently, the Ghanaian Food and Drug Board discovered that some herbal products available on the market in that country contain substances such as brake fluid, saw dust and turpentine, according to the Daily Guide newspaper of June 6 2012. These substances can cause serious adverse effects with fatal consequences in the unsuspecting users.
All these reports are worrisome and should sound a warning to Malawians. There are many traders who parade on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Television and other media outlets to advertise herbal products with â€˜seductiveâ€™ and funny vocabulary like â€˜cerebral careâ€™, â€˜antioxidantâ€™, â€˜detoxification productâ€™. Some of these adverts are bent on misleading lay people to coax them into buying the products. As a matter of fact, the body has systems which naturally get rid of waste products unless there is an ailment.
My advice to Malawians is simple. Do not allow to be coaxed into buying and using herbal products whose contents and safety are not known to avoid fatal consequences. If signs of compromised immunity like weight loss or wasting, persistent fever and any other disease are present, it is important to seek medical attention.
For those who are on prescribed medication, do not combine the medication with herbal products before seeking medical advice. Such combination may cause harmful drug interactions or affect the effectiveness of the prescribed medication. It is also important to believe that good nutrition and positive living boost the bodyâ€™s immunity.
Lastly, my plea to health authorities which include the Ministry of Health and the Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons Board is that they should start scrutinising and regulating the selling of herbal medicinal products in the country for the safety of Malawians.
The fact that a product is used in other countries is not a guarantee of its safety in human beings. It would also be prudent to institute and intensify research studies on effectiveness of different herbs to guide the use of their products.
â€”The author is a lecturer in medical and surgical nursing at Kamuzu College of Nursing, writing in his personal capacity.