Coronavirus: WHO cautions on use of African traditional medicine

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Salvatore di Nolfi/EPA
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Salvatore di Nolfi/EPA

The World Health Organization (WHO), on Monday, cautioned against the use of medicinal plants such as Artemisia annua, which have been touted as possible treatments for COVID-19.

The international health agency, in a statement, said while it supports scientifically proven traditional medicine, there is still a need to test for the efficacy and side effects of the newly touted drug.

The new herbal drug received global attention after Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, announced that his country had gotten a cure for COVID -19.

The herbal mix has not been scientifically tested yet, but many African countries have announced placing orders for it.

Mr Rajoelina, at the official launch of the herbal mix, “Baptised Covid-Organics”, said the tonic is derived from artemisia – a plant with proven efficacy in treating malaria – as well as other indigenous herbs.

It was developed by the Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) but has not been tested internationally.

“This herbal tea gives results in seven days,” he said.

Race for a cure

While the race to find a potential cure for the virus has been intensified globally, WHO African region said there is still a need to establish the efficacy of herbal drugs through clinical trials.

The organisation said it welcomes innovations around the world, including repurposing drugs, traditional medicines and developing new therapies in the search for potential treatments for COVID-19.

“WHO recognizes that traditional, complementary and alternative medicine has many benefits and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine and practitioners that play an important role in providing care to populations,” it said.

“Medicinal plants, such as Artemisia annua, are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 and should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects,” it added.

According to the statement, even though therapies are derived from traditional practice, it is critical to establish the efficacy and safety.

Support for countries

The international health agency, in the statement, said it will continue to support countries as they explore the role of traditional health practitioners, especially in prevention, control, and early detection of the virus, as well as case referral to health facilities.

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“Over the past two decades, WHO has been working with countries to ensure safe and effective traditional medicine development in Africa by providing financial resources and technical support.”

It said WHO has supported clinical trials, leading 14 countries to issue marketing authorisation for 89 traditional medicine products which have met international and national requirements for registration.

“Of these, 43 have been included in national essential medicines lists. These products are now part of the arsenal to treat patients with a wide range of diseases including malaria, opportunistic infections related to HIV, diabetes, sickle cell disease and hypertension.”

“Almost all countries in the WHO African region have national traditional medicine policies, following support from WHO.”

WHO warns that as efforts are under way to find a treatment for COVID-19, caution must be taken against misinformation, especially on social media, about the effectiveness of certain remedies.

It said many plants and substances are being proposed without the minimum requirements and evidence of quality, safety and efficacy.

The organisation said it welcomes every opportunity to collaborate with countries and researchers to develop new therapies and encourages collaboration for the development of effective and safe therapies for Africa and the world.

Earlier approval of traditional medicine

The statement said in 2000, at the Fiftieth Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa, African governments, through their Ministers of Health, adopted a resolution urging Member States to produce evidence on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine.

At that meeting, Countries had agreed to undertake relevant research and require national medicines regulatory agencies to approve medicines.

The approved medicines will be in line with international standards, which include the product following a strict research protocol and undergoing tests and clinical trials.

“These studies normally involve hundreds of people under the monitoring of the national regulatory authorities and may take quite a few months in an expedited process,” the statement said.

The organisation, thereafter, said it is working with research institutions to select traditional medicine products which can be investigated for clinical efficacy and safety for COVID-19 treatment.


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