NAIROBI - The Kenyan government is in the process of drafting a policy to regulate the use of herbal and other medicines prescribed by traditional healers. Arguments for and against regulation - and the contents of the draft policy - reflect many Kenyans’ love-hate relationship with traditional medicines and healers.
The use of plants to treat medical conditions has been an integral part of Kenya’s cultures for millennia, knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
Yet the conventional medical profession and many Kenyans have turned their backs on this rich tradition.
So says herbalist Dr. Maina Mwea. Initially a government pharmacist, Dr. Mwea turned to herbal medicine 20 years ago, a method he says is effective but has long been demonized.
“If you look back, in 1925 there was an act of Parliament enacted called Cap. 125, which outlawed the practice of traditional medicine and termed it ‘witchcraft.’ Since that time, it has never been reviewed,” said Dr. Mwea.
But that is about to change. The Kenyan government is drafting a policy that will regulate the practice of traditional medicine.
Dr. Jennifer Orwa is chief research officer at the Center for Traditional Medicines and Drug Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, or KEMRI. “The Ministry of Health will try and put in structures of a council who can be able to regulate the practice. Then there are the conservation issues, which is very important. We have a lot of medicines going out of our country, being sold outside, and then being processed and coming back,” she stated.
Herbalist Dr. Mwea says that, while it is important to regulate the field of traditional medicine, the proposed stringent toxicological and pharmacological clinical trials that traditional healers are required to conduct are too heavy-handed.
“First, the herbalists do not have that type of financial muscle to do it - it takes billions of shillings to run a project into the market. Two, a lot of them also do not have even the knowledge to do that. Three, the government itself, which is proposing these things, they do not even have the facilities,” said Dr. Mwea.
He argues that the successful use of certain plants for thousands of years to treat specific conditions is proof enough of safety.
KEMRI’s Dr. Orwa says the draft policy acknowledges that a traditional drug’s successful long-term use can be evidence of efficacy, as outlined by the World Health Organization.
In her words, the testing requirements are “a little bit mild” and generally do not require nearly a decade of test trials, as is the case with conventional drugs.
Dr. Orwa says she thinks it is no longer true that Kenya’s conventional health-care system rejects the value and richness of traditional medicines. “So now we have a whole center in KEMRI, which is doing research on traditional medicine and open to talk to traditional healers, and we find a lot of clinicians now appreciating," she noted. "In fact, in a few cases, you find the doctors when they cannot handle, they said, try a healer.”
And that is what has been happening in Dr. Maina Mwea’s clinic. Most of his patients have tried conventional drugs with no success. He says he has a strong client base despite what he says is an underlying bias against traditional medicines.