Lack of Regulation Affects Reliability of Commercial Herbal Products in Africa

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Fifty years ago, during the “Golden Age” of modern medicine, the use of herbal remedies would have had little chance of being used in Liberia’s primary healthcare system. So strong was the belief in modern medicine’s credo – ‘better living through Chemistry’ – that no responsible person, professional or otherwise, mentioned the word “herbs.”

Today, as the deadly consequences of a modern, artificial civilization are becoming more apparent to both medical professionals and the public at large, natural healing with herbal remedies merits and receives center stage.

In today’s healthcare climate, reduced insurance coverage, constraints on access to care, and increased costs prescriptions and services are the norms.

In this light, as I have been given chance to speak on this topic due to circumstances unknown, I am pleased to inform the public on the topic: “Lack of Regulation – a factor affecting the reliability of commercial herbal products in Africa, particularly Liberia.”

The lack of regulation is probably the single biggest factor affecting the reliability of commercial herbal products or herbal medicines in Africa. Because many of today’s pharmaceuticals are already plant-derived, such as digitalis (from a plant like foxglove), one may wonder why the pharmaceutical industry is so tightly regulated while the herbal industry or phytomedicine is not. Fellow herbal practitioners and clients, the answer to this question is based primarily in economics.

In the United States, clinical trials to demonstrate the safety, efficacy and reliability of a drug are expensive and time consuming. Currently, the drug approval process takes anywhere from 8 years to as many as 18 years, with costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Because of the great expense, manufacturers typically want to patent their product in order to recover their investment and make a profit. However, natural occurring products such as herbal remedies cannot be patented. Hence, no economic incentive exists, and to date, US pharmaceutical manufacturers’ only limited research on whole plants or their crude extracts. But such has not been the case in a country like Germany and other European countries.

As Africans, phytomedicine, or the use of plants or plant parts for therapeutic purposes, should continue as an ancient discipline that should be practiced in all African states. In 1985, a year before I began my research work on medicinal plants, Gerontology and Longevity Research, it was reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) that Herbal remedies constitute the primary form of healthcare for about 80 percent of the world’s people.

As Africans, phytomedicine should be an integral part of the broader scheme of pharmacognosy, which modern medicine practitioners are now taking serious advantage of in scientific research work for the study of chemical constituents taken from natural sources such as plants, animals, or other life forms including fungi, molds, and yeasts, for their medicinal properties.

The traditional medical theocracy in Africa or herbal industry in each African state needs to establish a commission in order to develop monographs to be of a definitive source of information on herbs. This commission could be established as an African governmental body much like the Food and Drug Administration in the United States or in any European or Asian country. When the African states have established the commission, it will be charged with the mission of investigating the safety and efficacy of herbal remedies commonly used in Africa in order to publish monographs for herbs.

Unlike US law, African law will allow herb manufacturers to market herbs with drugs claims if the herb is proven to be safe and effective. A manufacturer’s product will be considered safe and effective if it meets the standards outlined in the established commission’s monograph for that herb, or if the manufacturer can furnish additional evidence attesting to the safety and effectiveness of the herb. This evidence may come from the literature, from anecdotal information, or from clinical studies. The ability to make appropriate claims for herbal products will enable many manufacturers in African countries to achieve commercial success and invest in further research that in turn will help to increase the credibility of herbal products in mainstream medicine or conventional medicine. In so doing, in Africa, herbs will be sold over the counter as in other parts of the world, while others will be available by prescription only. The over-the-counter or prescription status of an herb will be based on its use and safety. Prescription herbs in Africa will be reimbursable by insurance.

With an eye to future regulation of herb manufacture throughout African states (especially Liberia), an organization should be formed and known as the African Scientific Cooperative on Phototherapy (ASCOP) which will be working to achieve consistent regulation of all African drugs or herbal medications. Much like other scientific cooperatives worldwide that have been developing monographs describing the therapeutic uses of herbs, based on sound clinical and scientific evidence, so shall ASCOP operate. Plans call for the monographs to be integrated eventually into the African pharmacopeia. Leading scientific authorities from all over
Africa should collaborate to carry out ongoing research efforts that have been started by other African countries such as Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, or Nigeria.

Finally, MOH Officials, WHO staffs here present in Liberia, local and international clients, I would like to propose three major laws that would regulate the quality, safety, and efficacy of African Herbal Medicinal Products.

1. An Act that would speak to the quality issue of herbal remedies
2. An Act that would speak or address safety, and
3. An Act that would mandate proof of therapeutic efficacy.

Pharmacological basis for the continual use of Africa’s historical and cultural source of proven cures need to be authenticated.

Therefore, African countries or states (particularly Liberia) must begin evaluating the safety and efficacy of widely used natural products such as herbal remedies, nutritional, food supplements, nutraceuticals and supporting pharmacological studies to determine the potential interactive effects of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) products with standard treatment medications.

Follow medical professionals and compatriots, in order to regulate, we must manufacture herbal remedies. In the end though, ordinary people – not doctors and scientists – are the ones bringing nature and medicine together again. Herbs are people medicines. If people use them appropriately, they can be effective medicine indeed, readily available to anyone. Herbs are a reminder that our lives depend absolutely on plants.

Grow them, use them and enjoy them.

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