Tackling COVID-19 with Herbal Medicine

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A few of many medicinal herbs of Liberia (clockwise from top): Sekutulay, Shoh, and dried papaya (paw-paw) leaves

Could Liberia tap its wealth of medicinal herbs for a cure for COVID-19, following Madagascar’s lead?

As the world waits

As scientists race for a vaccine for the deadly Coronavirus, it is apparently clear that the world is not waiting. With the global death toll teetering at approximately seven percent of the total number of confirmed cases and the survival rate at just over 33 percent, as of May 6, 2020, people all over the world are looking to alternative remedies to boost their immune systems and cure illnesses whose symptoms are similar to that of the Coronavirus.

And while some of these alternative medicinal remedies may not have been empirically tested and proven to the satisfaction of the medical community, testimonies of the efficacies of these remedies have been passed down through generations from time immemorial.

Lomini Goll, a Christian evangelist from lower Bong County, Liberia, says his late father, who was a herbalist, showed him a collection of herbs that could cure a number of illnesses.

Lomini Goll displays the herbs shown to him by his father. He believes that there could be a cure for the Coronavirus in the mixture of them. But just how to do it is the challenge.

One day, while listening to the song recorded by the President of Liberia, George M. Weah, urging that “we must all rise and stand together to fight Corona”, Goll said he prayed and asked God how he (Goll) could contribute to the fight against the deadly disease.

“And the Lord told me, ‘Why don’t you use the herbs that your father showed you?’ And knowing that this Coronavirus does not like heat,” Goll explained, “I decided to go and find the herbs and do some research.”

Goll said his research was no laboratory experiment, but a series of testimonials from interviews he conducted with people in towns and villages across lower Bong County, to whom he showed the herbs and asked about the herbs’ respective efficacies. As they confirmed to Goll what his father earlier taught him, he felt that this was information he could rely on and which he saw the need to share.

Everyday alternatives

Throughout the global health crisis, the concept of complementary or alternative medicine has claimed its share of the limelight. Alternative medicine is a term that describes medical treatments that are used instead of mainstream [hospital and doctor] therapies. For the record, no mainstream or alternative medicines have been certified as a cure specifically for the Coronavirus disease. However, there are treatments of both forms that are known to contain antibiotics, vitamins and other nutrients that build up human immune systems and, in some cases, are well known remedies for certain illnesses.

For example, meat, seafood, cereal grains and organic produce such as garlic are good sources of selenium, a drug that is currently administered along with an antibiotic known as azithromycin to treat Coronavirus patients in Liberia. While both of these drugs are found over the counter at local pharmacies, few Liberians know that garlic, while being a source of selenium, also possesses antibiotic properties.

Much of the foods and herbs that are locally and abundantly available in Liberia contain the immune system boosters and remedies for malaria, typhoid, the common cold, worms, fever, constipation, erectile dysfunctions and other illnesses in Liberia. Again, doctors hesitate to recommend these remedies in the absence of scientific due diligence. As a result, imported pharmaceuticals are the order of the day.

Garlic is a good source of selenium and antibiotics, two drugs that are currently used in the form of pills to treat confirmed cases of Coronavirus disease in Liberia.

And while many urban Africans would normally prefer a trip to the local clinic or hospital to treat these illnesses, a growing number of people in Liberia are avoiding the health facilities, amid news of health centers being under capacitated and overwhelmed in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Madagascar moves forward

Two weeks ago, the Republic of Madagascar launched its COVID Organic Tea, an improved traditional remedy made up of artemisia and other endemic medicinal plants, such as ravintsara, traditional herbs that are abundant on Malagasy soil. While the western medical community has expressed its hesitation to embrace the herbal remedy, African countries are lining up try the herb in large consignments. Early this week, Liberia, through the office of President George M. Weah, received a small consignment, which is currently undergoing due diligence by national health authorities.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged people to exercise caution with regard to the use of the COVID Organic Tea, telling the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that “there is no proof of a cure for COVID-19”.

“While some western, traditional or home remedies may provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of mild COVID-19, there are no medicines that have been shown to prevent or cure the disease,” the WHO website says in a Q&A about coronaviruses. “WHO does not recommend self-medication with any medicines, including antibiotics, as a prevention or cure for COVID-19. However, there are several ongoing clinical trials of both western and traditional medicines. WHO is coordinating efforts to develop vaccines and medicines to prevent and treat COVID-19 and will continue to provide updated information as soon research results become available.”

‘Can’t deny’ herbal medicine

Liberia’s wealth of medicinal herbs and their respective efficacies have been documented in numerous scientific journals and other publications. The herbs reported by Mr. Goll, for example, are known as Sekutulay, Shoh, and dried papaya (paw-paw) leaves, which he says should be put in hot boiling water and used for heat treatment (not to be ingested). The application, according to him, should be twice a day (morning and evening) for about three days. However, his recipe is nowhere close to being scientifically approved for treatment of Coronavirus patients. Goll also does not say how much of each herb may be used at a time.

Meanwhile, lemon grass, life everlasting leaf, fever leaf, potoato greens, jologbo, coconut water, sour sop, dandelion are just a few of the more well known herbs that grow wild in Liberia and that have varying degrees of efficacies against a range of illnesses including malaria, low blood, cancer, and the common cold.

Mr. Kpakae L. Roberts, research coordinator for the Traditional Medicine Federation of Liberia (TRAMEDFOL), says long before the Coronavirus arrived in Liberia, he suggested to the Liberian government, through open letters to the President and to national health authorities, respectively, some dietary measures to implement in order for Liberians to boost their immune systems as a preventive measure against the deadly disease. TRAMEDFOL is responsible to register all herbalists and conduct research on medicinal plants.

“We can use raw food diet for the coronavirus treatments,” Roberts told the Daily Observer in an interview. “Diet is the single most powerful tool for the treatment of diseases. What we are looking for in the plant is the enzyme. Once the enzyme is moved (i.e. by heat or cooking), they will be denatured and the molecular structure of the substances will be rearranged. Therefore they will not be assimilated by the body. Our bodies are not designed to eat cooked food.”

Roberts says Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr. Francis Kateh, replied his communication, requesting that Roberts provide scientific backing with medical proof.

“So I sent him copies of my research on diet and dietetics over 34 years, as well as relevant articles from American and British science journals concerning the efficacies of raw food diet,” Roberts said, adding that Dr. Kateh rejected his research findings.

in his letter to health authorities, Roberts sent a list of readily accessible raw foods that Liberians could use, but stressed that the recipe(s) for the dietary regimen, which he is able to prescribe, are key to achieving desired results. These include, carrots, mangoes, apples, cucumbers, ginger, garlic, radish, honey, watermelon, lettuce and a host of other raw foods that could be found just about anywhere in the country.

“We are all Africans and we can’t deny that… most of us even benefitted from herbal medicine,” Dr. Emmanuel Ekyinabah, president of the Liberia Medical and Dental Association (LMDA), told the Daily Observer. LMDA is the governing organization for all practicing medical doctors in Liberia. Its regulatory arm, the Liberia Medical and Dental Council (LMDC), is involved in the performance of due diligence on all forms of medical treatment compounds introduced in Liberia. “So, the challenge we have with herbal medicine is most of them are mixtures. They have to be purified, they have to be quantified in dosage.”

According to Dr. Ekyinabah, the LMDC has a seat for a representative of those who practice complementary medicine (another name for alternative medicine).

“[Complementary medicine] is not well developed [in Liberia] as in other countries, but they do some collaboration. They have a representative on the Medical Council, which does the regulation.

“There were efforts in the past to see how they could get some of those [herbs] and extract the active ingredients, but that has not gone through yet.  So there is some cooperation, but it is minimal. Whether we can take advantage of this, now that we are all struggling to find a solution, that could be worked out,” Ekyinabah said.

Dr. Edwin S. Quoibia heads the Division of Complementary Medicine at Liberia’s Ministry of Health

Dr. Edwin S. Quoibia, who heads the Division of Complementary Medicine at the Ministry of Health, says “Liberia is just dormant on traditional medicine. Not that we are not making an effort; we have been engaging with the authorities at NPHIL and the Ministry of Health, but they do not seem to be taking our work seriously.”

According to him, other countries including Ghana and Nigeria are well ahead in their standardization of traditional medicine, “but we are not even funded”. He says his office has a database of over 2,000 herbalists nationwide and in various specializations including bone, respiratory, internal and external illnesses. He also told the Daily Observer that his office has been decentralized in all of Liberia’s 15 counties “but, without funding, there is no motivation for the people to work.”

Dr. Quoibia says he earned his bachelor’s degree in Toronto, Canada and a doctorate in traditional medicine from London, after which he returned to Liberia in 1977. He ran a private herbal medicine practice until 2009, when he was called on to head the Division of Complementary Medicine at the Ministry. Now, at about 72 years of age — admittedly past the age of retirement — he wonders about the future of traditional medicine in Liberia and what it would take for the practice to gain more respect.

Liberia’s Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, says the Division of Complementary Medicine needs to apply for grants in order to fund research and development of herbal medicine in Liberia.

Due diligence

In a telephone interview with the Daily Observer, Minister Jallah outlined in a nutshell the authorities involved in getting newly-developed medicines from concept to the being admitted as a treatment protocol.

“When we receive this medicine, we do due diligence. There are four medical functionaries that have to give me a response. They are the the Ethics Board; the Liberia Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority (LMHRA) which approves all drugs for use by the Liberian medical community; the Liberia Pharmacy Board; and Liberia’s Chief Pharmacist. I have sent this to them and they will … do due diligence on whatever drug it is and give me a report. That’s how we operate.”

Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, Liberia’s Minister of Health

Dr. Jallah said contrary to information circulating on social media, the recent small consignment of COVID Organic Tea received by the Liberian government from Madagascar is intended for testing and is subject to due diligence requirement by the above-mentioned functionaries.

“Even though other countries did their own due diligence, we in Liberia have to do our own due diligence because if anything happens to any of our citizens, what will we say? That the people used the medicine in Madagascar but we did not check it, but said our people should take it? So our people who are our experts here are to verify and give me a report … to help guide me, as I guide the authorities.

As for Liberian herbal medicines, “they have not been tested on COVID-19,” she says. “I did receive some documents proffering local herbal treatments and requesting for an opportunity to test them on Liberian patients. So they don’t know whether theirs will work or not, as compared to the people in Madagascar who already tested theirs. We are only doing a counter test on their (Madagascar’s) test. But to start with a new product, which nobody has tested, and start testing it on people, that will be unethical.”

Editor’s note: Yarkpai Keller contributed to this story. 

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