8 April 2004
South Africa has set up a medical research unit to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of traditional African medicines, to develop new remedies for chronic conditions, to safeguard indigenous knowledge, and to provide consumer information and protection.
The Institute for African Traditional Medicines will research and evaluate African traditional medicines and explore their potential to help address the health and economic needs of the country and the continent.
The Institute is a reference centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), working in partnership with the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Provincial references centres for African traditional medicines will be established in different provinces – the first one was launched in the Western Cape in February 2004 – to work in collaboration with the national centre in Pretoria, which was set up in August 2003.
The launch of the institute came out of a research programme initiated by the health department and the MRC to test the effectiveness and safety of traditional medicines, as well as to to protect people from unscrupulous conduct and unproven medical claims within the traditional healing sector.
“This is informed by our own African traditions of using herbs for medicinal purposes for treating sick people,” Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said. “We think it is incorrect to use these medicines under the table. Let’s put them on the table so that we can see which ones are of quality, which ones are safe and so on.
“South Africa is blessed with a rich heritage of medicinal plants that, through sustained research and development, could offer a solution to some of the common health problems the world is grappling with”, the minister said.
Local production of traditional medicinal products held great potential for trade, job creation and poverty alleviation, and could also offer affordable alternatives to imported drugs, she added.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 80% of Africans use traditional medicines – compared to 60% of the world’s population in general – and approximately 200 000 traditional healers practise in South Africa.
Although modern medicines are available in most countries on the continent, traditional medicines have often remained popular for historical and cultural reasons.
WHO has stated that traditional medicines need to be evaluated for safety and effectiveness before they can be incorporated into – or excluded from – national health policies.
Gilbert Matsabisa, head of the MRC’s indigenous knowledge systems unit, urged traditional healers to come forward and share their knowledge, saying the research would help “answer the sceptics”, showing that traditional medicines have value and an important place in health care.
“The MRC has put in place systems to safeguard the intellectual property rights of individuals or communities, who may bring forward such agents for evaluation”, Matsabisa said.
He said the Council would conduct tests to evaluate such medicines, develop substances that could be used for chronic conditions – including immune boosters -and provide information on these medicines to the general public.
“The MRC will also serve as a clearing house for any claims that may be made of potential immune modulators and complementary medicines”, Matsabisa added.