TRADITIONAL medicine is defined as: “The sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses.”
In Africa, the extensive use of traditional medicine, composed mainly of medicinal plants, has been linked to cultural and economic reasons.
Several plant families were traditionally used as ethno-medicines for treating such ailments as skin rashes, diarrhoea, eye infections and wounds, among other infirmities.
Plants were seen to provide analgesic and antiseptic effects.
Different plants were also used for healing and protection against supernatural forces.
Particular combinations of plants were associated with specific conditions; and have been well-established for some time.
Plants typically contain mixtures of different phytochemicals, also known as secondary metabolites, that may act individually, additively or in synergy to improve health.
Indeed, medicinal plants, unlike pharmacological drugs, usually have several chemicals working together catalystically and synergistically to produce a combined effect that surpasses the overall activity of individual constituents.
The combined actions of these substances tend to increase the activity of the main medicinal constituent by speeding up or slowing down its assimilation in the body.
Secondary metabolites from plant’s origins might increase the stability of the active compound(s) or phytochemicals, minimise the rate of any undesired adverse side effects and have an additive, potentiating or antagonistic effect.
The use of medicinal plants as a fundamental component of the African traditional healthcare system is perhaps the oldest and the most assorted of all therapeutic systems.
In many parts of rural Africa, traditional healers prescribing medicinal plants are the most easily accessible and affordable health resource available to local communities and, at times, the only therapy available to them.
While there is lack of data and/or written information on medicinal plants from the African continent, the African biodiversity is, nonetheless, rich in medicinal plants which have short as well as long-term potential to be developed as future phytopharmaceuticals to treat and/or manage a panoply of infectious and chronic health conditions.
Literature on local or indigenous traditional knowledge tends to affirm its value and to validate such alternative ways of knowing.
In fact, in the later decades of the 20th Century, it was offered both as a critique of top-down, coercive development strategies that were failing in many contexts and as a route to understanding why rural communities in so many poor countries rejected elements of scientifically-based policies.
An alternative and perhaps most sustainable method of treatment readily adaptable to rural communal livestock farmers in Africa is the utilisation of traditionally known plant extracts as an alternative and most sustainable ethno-veterinary medicine (EVM).
Traditionally developed by indigenous farmers rather than scientists in laboratories and clinics, EVM was transferred by word of mouth generationally. The practice is less systematic and less formalised, as well as environmentally and climate change friendly. In recent times, research has addressed a broad range of topics within this field, including plant-based and non-plant-based preparations, folk categories of illness, efficacy of treatments and zoo pharmacognosy.
Research in ethno-veterinary practices is often undertaken as part of a community-based approach that serves to improve animal health and provide basic veterinary services in underserved areas. Currently, EVMs are becoming more appealing to livestock farmers as they aim to improve the quality of their beef by producing meat without chemical residues. Plant products used for animal health are also less likely to become environmental pollutants; thus ethno-veterinary medicine practices present a more environmentally-friendly approach to animal healthcare.
But despite the fact that many communal farmers use plants to treat livestock diseases, there is no ethno-veterinary pharmacopeia and current information on ethno-veterinary usage of plants is still limited.
While some positive indications from local plants have been recorded by scientific researchers, most experiments, however, suggest that solutions in water release fewer of the active ingredients. Further studies are needed to determine the minimum inhibitory concentrations, biological activities and toxicities and to characterise the plant chemical compounds.
Outside its indigenous culture, traditional medicine has been adopted by other populations, and is often termed Complementary or Alternative Medicine (CAM). During the past decades, the developed world has witnessed a growing trend in the use of complementary or alternative medicine, mainly herbal remedies. Herbal medicines include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products that contain parts of plants or other plant materials as active ingredients.
WHO estimates that 80 percent of the emerging world’s population currently relies on traditional medicine for therapy and is encouraging African member-States to promote and integrate traditional medical practices in their national health systems. Surveys carried out in developed countries, like Germany and Canada, show that at least 70 percent of their population have tried CAM at least once. In Africa, 90 percent of the population in Ethiopia currently use herbal remedies for their primary healthcare.
It is postulated that the diversity of chemical structures found in African plants contain specialised secondary metabolites involved in the relationship of the organism with the environment — for example, attractants of pollinators, signal products, defensive substances against predators and parasites or resistance against pests and diseases.
A single plant may, for example, contain bitter substances that stimulate digestion and possess anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce swellings and pain, phenolic compounds that can act as an antioxidant and venotonics, antibacterial and antifungal tannins that act as natural antibiotics, diuretic substances that enhance the elimination of waste products and toxins as well as alkaloids that enhance mood and give a sense of well-being.
Although some may view the isolation of phytochemicals and their use as single chemical entities as a better alternative and have resulted in the replacement of plant extracts’ use, nowadays, a view that there maybe some advantages of the medical use of crude and/or standardised extracts as opposed to isolated single compounds is gaining much momentum in the scientific community.
Key scientific publications on African traditional medicinal plants are being explored to examine developments within the framework of enhancing the significance of traditional African medicinal plants, aspects such as traditional use, phytochemical profile, in vitro, in vivo and clinical studies and also future challenges pertaining to the use of these plants.
This makes a strong case for the transmission of traditional knowledge systems. In medicine for example, disseminating information about the relevant plants and also the plant combinations used especially in combatting particular diseases is desirable. This was the case with the global development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The comprehensive knowledge of plant remedies in traditional cultures, developed over many centuries through trial and error, along with their important cures, were conscientiously passed on from one generation to another verbally. Indeed, modern allopathic medicine has its roots in ancient African medicine.
It is likely that many important new remedies will be developed and commercialised in future from the extensive African biodiversity by following the leads provided by traditional knowledge and experiences.
However, Africa and African traditional knowledge systems must be recognised and acknowledged by the Western wold medical authorities.
Dr Tony M. Monda BSc, DVM, DPVM, is currently conducting Veterinary epidemiology, and Agro-economic research in Zimbabwe. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com