Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Locally-growing moringa tree key in fight against malaria

Participants at the on-going 5th Pan-African Malaria Conference at Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI

Participants at the on-going 5th Pan-African Malaria Conference at Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI 

By GATONYE GATHURA and ISAIAH ESIPISU

A malaria treatment derived from a locally-growing shrub is one of only a few herbal cures being presented at the ongoing international conference in Nairobi.

The tree, moringa oleifera, commonly known as horseradish or mlonge in Kiswahili, is competing alongside malaria medicines developed by some of the world’s best scientists with the backing of global pharmaceutical giants.

According to a presentation at the Pan- African Malaria Conference, moringa extract, in combination with other herbs, has been seen to cure even drug-resistant malaria.

Unfortunately for Kenya, this development has been made by Nigerians who say the drug called zogali has been approved by the country’s national drug registration agency.

Several herbal malaria cures are being presented at the conference but none from Kenyans despite repeated claims by local herbalists that they can easily treat and even cure the disease.

According to Dr N. Emetu of the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology in Nigeria, the product has been endorsed and accepted after trials by the World Health Organisation.

If this drug wins wider acceptance, it could do for the local tree what another shrub, the sweet wormwood, has done for China. An extract from the Chinese tree has become the drug of choice for treating malaria across the world. As a result, it has become a major cash crop in several countries.

While moringa grows wildly in some parts of the country, several groups of farmers at the Coast, Western, Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces are commercially planting the tree.

The leaves are crushed and sold as food supplements while the seeds are pressed and the extract exported to Europe, China and the US, where it is used in the cosmetics industry.

The main buyer of the seeds is Earth Oil, an export processing zone firm in Athi River.

According to the Nigerian study, the combination herbal remedy not only cures malaria but also boosts the immune system of patients, thereby ensuring complete eradication, sustenance of body resistance and protection from subsequent attack by the parasite.

Evidence presented at the meeting by the University of Ghana and that of Gezira, Sudan, indicated that plant extracts from Africa have the capacity to treat malaria but so far are underutilised.

This new evidence is coming up at a time researchers are worried by increasing malaria drug resistance in most parts of the world.

“We must plan for new drugs before the current ones are rendered ineffective through resistance,” said Dr Drew Lewis, an official at Pfizer.

Pfizer, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is in the process of developing a new drug to be used in the prevention of malaria infection in pregnant mothers.

The new drug, whose development enters Phase III by early next year, is likely to substitute existing medicines used to prevent malaria infection in pregnant women as the disease-causing parasite is rapidly developing resistance.

The drug is a combination of two molecules azithromycin and chloroquine. “When the two are used together they have an efficacy rate of 97 per cent, which is good enough,” said Dr Lewis.

So far, WHO recommends pregnant women take a dose of a combination of sulfadoxine and pyrimethamine (SP), commonly sold in Kenya under brand names such as Fansidar.

“It is important that pregnant women take these drugs to clear the placenta of malaria-causing parasites. This is because they steal food nutrients meant for the foetus, making it underweight and unhealthy,” said Dr Lewis.

The SP drugs, which have for years been used in the treatment of uncomplicated malaria, have since been rendered irrelevant after the malaria-causing parasite developed resistance to it.

This has paved the way for the new first line drugs which, according to WHO, must be a combination of artemether and another anti-malarial drug.

However, it was discovered that the SP drugs are still effective in preventing malaria in pregnancy. But researches show that the parasite is still mounting resistance against it, and it could become completely useless, even in pregnancy, in the near future.