Traditional Medicines Gain Recognition

Sibongile Mpofu

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe - Aug 2007

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The Zimbabwe government has thrown its support behind traditional medicines that are thought to have therapeutic benefits and reduce the strain of HIV/AIDS on patients by offering scientific research to determine the effectivness of such herbs.

While there has been a lot of debate worldwide on the use of traditional medicines to treat opportunistic infections associated with HIV/AIDS, the fact remains that millions of Africans and indeed other cultures in the developing world remain deeply rooted in the use of traditional medicine.

It is against this background that most governments, with the assistance of international funding organizations are looking at ways to integrate herbal medicines into their national health programmes.

Zimbabwe is in the process of setting up a HIV/AIDS policy which among other things would help set research guidelines. Researchers at the University of Zimbabwe have come up with a new herbal medicine called Gundamiti after 14 years of research. This drug which is already being distributed in the country is said to reduce the viral load on a HIV patient’s bloodstream by 90 percent within two months of therapy.

Deputy minister of Health and Child Welfare, Dr Edwin Muguti said the drug had proven that it could reduce the effects of HIV. We are aware of the claims that have been made regarding its potential. It is a herbal combination that has shown some promise in the treatment of some illnesses.

He also said that while government was not directly involved in research, it supports organizations that are. Herbs with similar effects have been discovered elsewhere in Africa and in some countries like Zambia and South Africa clinical trials are underway to try to regulate some of these herbs.

Herbalists feel that government should avail more resources for traditional medicinal research. President of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, Gordon Chavunduka said traditional herbs are very popular with people living with HIV/AIDS; studies have shown that their intake does have a positive effect. However, more research needs to be undertaken so that the specific properties of these herbs and their long-term effects can be determined, he added.

He said if properly researched and patented, traditional medicine could be an answer for poor countries such as Zimbabwe with small health budgets to import generic drugs. Anti-retro viral (ARV) drugs, which have shown to be effective in suppressing the effects of HIV/AIDS in the west are far too expensive for most people in the developing world.

In Zimbabwe, out of an estimated 1.5 million people living with the disease only 60 000 are receiving treatment in both the private and public sector. Because of budgetary constraints few patients are accessing the subsidised ARVs under the government programme, leaving the majority of HIV/AIDS sufferers with no choice but to seek alternative affordable treatment.

We are seeing more people resorting to herbal treatment because of the high cost of the ARVs, said Dr Chavunduka. ARVs cost up to Z$6 million for a monthly course at private pharmacies while Gundamiti, which comes in capsules is readily available at Z$600 000 for one month’s supply. With declining disposable incomes and declining per capita income, a lot of Zimbabweans are opting for alternative medicine.