Beyond The Prejudice Over Herbal Drugs
He jumped down from the bus ignoring enraged passengers demanding their change on getting to their destination. He awkwardly gave a female passenger standing before him N200, ‘marrying’ her with another young man whose change was also N100.
The driver, known as Action, dashed into a small stand displaying a collection of herbal mixtures some metres away. He collected a N100 note from Mrs Bolanle Adisa popularly called Iya Abbey – a short slim woman running the herbal stall – and handed it over to the last commuter yelling at him.
As Action and his departing angry passenger traded insults, Adisa randomly picked from a line of 150cl plastic bottles housing varieties of soaked herbal concoctions. Without waiting for further directive from the restless driver, she poured some drops into a piece of small white nylon.
“Mama, put more of ale (aphrodisiac),” he ordered as the woman reached for the sixth bottle.
After completing the collections, she shook the content and served it to Action who, without much ado, gulped the mixture at once and sauntered back to where his bus was parked. Adisa called the mixture gbobo’nise; (all disease-healing herb).
“It will flush out all the dirt in your body system and make you satisfy madam (on bed) very well,” she said wryly, persuading other commuters to give it a try. “It has alcohol which makes it powerful. That young man (referring to Action) and many other youths take it every day,” she declared.
Interest in traditional herbal medicines is assuming an upward trend globally according to the World Health Organization, with about 80 per cent of the African population using them.
Easily accessible and usually cheap, herbal products are well preferred by the vast majority of the poor who cannot afford orthodox health care.
While herbal mixtures like gbogbo’nise might have served the needs of Action and many others, their safety remains a source of concerns due to unregulated dosage and high risk of contamination.
Some kilometers away, a herbal vendor whose stand overlooks a bank along the road boasts of cures to various health challenges. From aphrodisiac to ‘anti-malaria’ and jedi (haemorrhoids) herbs, Lukman as he prefers to be identified, has endeared himself to many customers – young and old.
One of them is Mr Salaki Sola popularly called “Baba”, a carpenter.
“I buy agunmu jedi (haemorrhoids powder) and ale (aphrodisiac) in bulk every month,” Sola revealed. “I take two small spoons of both with water or pap every three days to stay fit and be manly enough,” he grinned, picking up two small white packs of his favorites’ after paying N800.
Experts have expressed worry over health risks posed by consumption of poorly prepared herbal mixtures. Contaminants, especially those toxic to the body system, and lack of dosage for most herbal medicines have continually raised concerns.
Four samples of herbal products comprising aphrodisiac, jedi and “anti-malaria” bought from Adisa, Lukman and some other vendors in Rumueme, Mile 3 and Mile 1 areas in Port Harcourt.
The products, two of which bear NAFDAC numbers, were subjected to microbial analysis at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital. Bacteria and fungi isolated from a gram of jedi bought from Lukman include Bacillius subtilis, Penicillium, Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus.
Dr. Akpofure Ovienime, a microbiologist at the University of Benin, noted that Aspergillus flavus produces aflatoxin which could be harmful to the liver.
Ovienime stated, “Aspergillus flavus should not be present in herbal products. However, if its load is minimal, the immune system can fight it. Some strains of Penicillium also produce toxins.”
Aspergillus flavus is also present in Lukman’s gbogbo’nise while Penicillum is isolated in the supposed anti-malaria herbal mixture bought at a popular joint in Mile 3.
WHO’s guidelines for assessing the quality of herbal medicines specify the maximum limit of yeasts and molds (fungi) present in a plant material for use as teas and infusions – soaking – as 104 CFU/g. In other words, the microbial counts must not exceed 10,000 cells.
A microbiologist at the Rivers State University, Mr Lawrence George, observed that organisms such as Aspergillus and Penicillum are opportunistic pathogens, especially when the contamination occurs after herbal production, adding that they usually cause diseases in people with deficient immunity.
“Aspergillus flavus produces aflatoxin. Its presence gives a red flag and it is possible that such product can contain some harmful substances. Very little load of such organisms will cause problem for consumers that have immuno deficiency. But for normal healthy people, the spores of those organisms have to be in large quantity before they can elicit disease condition. ” George said.
In an interview with The Vortex, a Port Harcourt based public health consultant, Dr. John Ephraim Monday, said most of the manpower mixtures contained high percentage of alcohol, thereby constituting a potential risk factor for high blood pressure, cancer, heart and liver diseases.
He said, “Manpower contains high percentage of alcohol which has effects on virtually all the organs of the body, especially the heart and the liver. Liver is what detoxifies the body. Once the alcohol intake is much, it affects the liver and the person begins to have abdominal pains and yellowness of eyes. The liver can break down leading to a chronic liver disease.
“The alcohol also has effects on the brain. It can affect the central nervous system and lead to withdrawal syndrome like tremor of the hands, lack of concentration and inability to make good judgments. That is why we advise people that are into it to quit instead of reducing the amount they consume.”
As a result of increased use, traditional herbal medicines have received significant attention in global health debate. In China, for instance, they played a prominent role in containing and treating severe acute respiratory syndrome, (SARS), according to a report in the 2016 bulletin of WHO.
It is claimed that 80 per cent of African population use some form of traditional herbal medicines with the worldwide annual market for the products nearing $60bn.
In the global research on herbal medicines, Nigeria is regarded to have also made substantial contributions. However, ethical issues bordering on safety standards continue to plague the use of herbs, especially a high number of those sold on the streets without screening.
To be continued.