Herbal Medicine is the science of using herbal remedies to treat ailments in a form suitable for administration to patients. The remedies are usually made of herbs that are crude plant materials such as leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, stem wood, bark, roots, rhizomes, or other plant parts, which may be entire, fragmented, or powdered. In addition to herbs, herbal medicines also typically include fresh juices, gums, fixed oils, essential oils, resins, and dry powder.
Some school of thought believe that African herbal medicine has nothing to offer and therefore should be phased out in solidarity of orthodox medicine. The usual argument is that there is inadequate scientific evidence or evaluation to back the therapeutic claims for most of the herbs coupled with safety concerns as it is believed that these remedies are unhygienic and adulterated.
Nonetheless, herbal remedies have their positives especially for Africa because it is considered more affordable and accessible than orthodox medicine in most cases. Amongst many other positives, herbal medicine practitioners could serve as an additional source of health manpower in Africa, a continent where the doctor-to-patient ratio is very low with an estimated 1:5000 (WHO, 2015).
The World Health Organization currently reports that more than 80% of the world’s population depend on herbs for their primary health care, most especially those in developing countries, hence an abrupt withdrawal and resentment of herbal medicine will do more harm than good.
What happens to the almost 6 billion people who depend on it? The better approach would be to integrate herbal medicine into the existing national healthcare policies of all African states so it can properly monitored and structured for best practices.
Besides, Herbal medicine was the genesis of modern medicine owing to the fact that many reputable drugs originated from plant sources. Moreover, herbal medicine has experienced considerable progress in other climes from the original trial-and-error method used in administering treatments to high and detailed research done to ascertain the phytochemical constituents and the pharmacological and toxicological effects of individual plant materials before they are formulated or administered to patients. Africa should begin to look more in this direction as well.
Africa is blessed with lots of food crops and an almost perfect climate for growing agricultural plants, hence, to make the best use of our herbal medicine, more funds need to be devoted and geared towards the training of herbal medicine practitioners, they should be included in our academic programs, biochemists, pharmacologists, clinical pharmacognosy should be empowered with information, technical know-how and infrastructure to lead conversations and initiatives geared towards bringing as many herbal medicine workers onboard as possible.
The WHO guidelines on good herbal processing practices for herbal medicines should be fully adopted and implemented. Africa should adopt harmonized laws and regulations for the uptake, use, and distribution of plant materials. Thankfully, the African Union has been at the forefront of bringing home WHO’s vision for an integration of herbal medicine by creating a program of Medicinal Plant Research and Drug Development at the Pan African University Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. In addition to this, the first continent-wide webinar on African Traditional/Indigenous Knowledge and Science in the 21st Century organized by African Union took place in May (2021).
However, more must be done.