‘Herbal drugs can cause organ failure, addiction’

Dr. Sam Etatuvie is the Director General and Chief Executive of Nigeria, Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), which is under the Ministry of Science and Technology. In this interview, he highlights the great potentials in natural medicine, the dangers and risks they could pose to wellbeing when used inappropriately and the specific measures being undertaken to sanitise herbal and traditional drugs to enable consumers of health take advantage of their benefits. APPOLONIA ADEYEMI reports




What is irrational use of traditional medicine?

The irrational use of traditional medicines is the same thing as the irrational use of other products that are used to moderate health conditions. A lot of activities and interactions for the control of drugs, have been taking place. Recently, the Presidency set up a committee on Drug Abuse and the team submitted its report not too long ago.

Also, as an agency of government, the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), that has been mandated to research, develop and promote traditional medicine, we feel that enough focus has not been put in the control of natural medicine, particularly considering that there are a lot of prepared natural medicines popularly called ‘Agbo’ (cooked and ready-to-use herbal preparation) in Yoruba language, which its sellers hawk around communities. From my experience and interactions with many people, we know that some of the things they hawk are potential dangers to the health of Nigerians.

Even the way these products are packaged in different colours in plastic bottles similarly portends danger to health. The products are packaged in various colours: blue, red, black, which are dispensed into cellophane nylons. In most cases these products are hot and the hawkers selling them also move under the hot sun; hence the temperature may be one that is not too good for our people.

Also, there is also what is called leaching; as you pour these hot liquid natural medicine into the nylon, there are chemicals that will leach from the nylon into the drug products and certain things popularly called weeds are also put into those products and they cause addiction and abuse.

You will also find out that the calibre of people taking these products are taxi and commercial bus drivers as well as motor cycle riders; it gives them refilled energy. Even the minor workers that want something that will boost their energy and enable them work from morning till night without being tired, also take these medicines. The products are not healthy. You will also find that some of the things they use in preparing these herbs have potential of damaging key organs of the body.

Our attempt is to make sure that we interface with the various groups, especially the herb sellers that provide the raw materials for the people that make ‘Agbo’ and also to interface with the people that sell this ‘Agbo’ around, to advice and educate them, so as to let them know that although, they are doing some work, but there are also some dangers in the work they are doing.

Based on believe that things are difficult and they are trying to get things done for their livelihood,  there are better ways of presenting these natural drugs to consumers. We believe that public sensitisation is very important and that is why we are interfacing with the media to bring out this information. We think that this will be more regular as one of the major works of the NNMDA.

Instituting legal backing for traditional medicine

For over 10 years, even at the level of the National Council on Health, there has been efforts to encourage state governments to establish Traditional Medicine Boards. As at today, I don’t think we have up to 10 state that have been able to establish these boards. If there is a board, it will be able to regulate the activities of the practitioners under their national umbrella, the National Association of Nigerian Traditional Medicine Practitioners (NANTMP). Like every other profession, the Board will be able to sieve the bad ones from the genuine ones and it will help to reduce indiscriminate hawking of these ‘Agbo’ that we are talking about.

Achieving Traditional Medicine Boards at the national level                                                                                      

At the national level there were attempts to have a Council of the Traditional Medicine Board since the 7th Assembly, but because of the disunity within the NANTMP and the difficulty of pushing those kind of Council through the National Assembly, we have not been able to achieve that law. Once we have the Council, it will be able to bring out their regulatory framework. However, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is also trying. We have heard several times when the director general of NAFDAC was talking about traditional medicine Board and how to regulate their products.

We will work with other stakeholders to see whether that Council for practitioners will be put in place. If we have a Council at the national level and  Boards in the states, the control of different aspects of traditional medicine will be better guided through working with different organisations.

We are also working with different organisations so that we can have the better way to tap into the knowledge.

Bringing herbal and traditional medicine practitioners under one roof

Working with herbal and traditional medicine practitioners for over 15 years have opened my eyes to many things we ought to do as solution if we really want to explore the potentials of natural medicine for the wellbeing of our populace.

We made attempts with the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) when Dr. Olubunmi Omosehindemi was still the chairman of the Lagos State Traditional Medicine Board, in bringing all these traditional medicine practitioners under one association which is NANTMP.

It worked for some time and after some time; everybody started going his own way because there is a lot of leadership tussle among members of that NANTMP. At a point in time, it became very much difficult. The challenge then was that everybody in NANTMP want to be a leader. They don’t have the patience to allow somebody to lead for some time and afterwards another person comes to lead. This tussle has been on and even at some point some people claimed that members were fighting themselves, using ‘different means’.

However, we invited the members of the NANTMP to this office (NNMDA) more than two times to try to reconcile the various factions because as I always say: ‘’they are professionals’’ in their own right. Many of them got these knowledge through understudying their parents, uncles, among others, over the years.  Hence, they are the custodians of traditional medicine knowledge. In whatever we do, we give them high regard.

One of the things we (NNMDA) do is the documentations of plants; we don’t go into the forest or bush without one, two or three of them  within the zone because they are the original owners of these knowledge and that is why we also work with them to make sure we protect their intellectual property in whatever we do. I believe that if you talk to them at this level and the other group and convince them as well as sensitise them, we may be able to bring them back later.

On the issue of the ‘Agbo’ (ready-to-drink and cooked herbal medication), we see the hawkers of the natural medicine move around the streets with the hot liquid drug products in different plastics, different colours, which is powered into a cellophane nylon bag, tied and given to consumers to drink. We believe that is one of the sources of irrational use of herbal medicines.

Measures to take

One of the steps we plan to take is to identify these different groups and talk to them at different stages with a view to unite them. That is what we did in reconciling members of NANTMP because they have one group in the north and another in the south. Even as at today, we still have the West African Traditional Medicine Practitioners as well as the Nigerian Traditional Medicine Association. They are many, but it was through the wisdom then of the FMOH that we organised them. It has been a lot of efforts in trying to bring them together as one group.

Notwithstanding, we will continue to do that at every opportunity we have because they will benefit more as a professional body and as a group that is serving the country if they are united and speak with one voice.

If any group wants anything from government and they are in disarray, government will not attend to them. That is one of the challenges that NANTMP has today. That organisation cannot go to the FMOH today and get the deserved respect it ought to have because there are too many factions within that group .

One of the ways we need to go is constant interaction. I believe that we can also reach the ‘Agbo’ hawkers and they, too can also work with the herb sellers. The livelihood of many of these professionals depend on the ‘Agbo’ that they sell and people patronise them. The truth is that people patronise them; hence, we cannot wish them away.

The only thing we can do is plan how to bring them to a round table and educate them on new steps to practice their profession. That is one of the mandates of the NNMDA, which is to carry out advocacy and training. This is what many other countries did. Apart from documentation, they carried out massive training and improved on what they were doing.

We also encourage herbal and traditional medicine practitioners to interact with researchers because there is a lot of innovation coming up and we need science and technology background to improve on what we are doing.

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