It’s time to ban all these herbal ‘wonder drugs’ whose efficacy is questionable

Monday September 7 2015

Only statistics from clinical trials, with their thoroughness and objectivity, can attest to efficacy and safety. A collection of anecdotes involving your grandmother can never challenge the superiority of data. PHOTO | FILE

Only statistics from clinical trials, with their thoroughness and objectivity, can attest to efficacy and safety. A collection of anecdotes involving your grandmother can never challenge the superiority of data. PHOTO | FILE 

By WAGA ODONGO
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I once interviewed a lecturer at a public university with a fascinating tale. He had, by blind luck, discovered the cure for HIV and cancer in one weed growing outside a hut in Nyandarua County.

Remarkably, his papers were all in order: a bachelor’s degree here, a masters there, and his PhD from much further afield. More impressively, he had Masters degrees in different disciplines. His teaching experience was extensive and he came bearing a mini-library of documents he had presented at conferences.

He was a renaissance man, as comfortable discussing  the medical history of how grave robbing advanced the study of human anatomy as the latest advances in DNA editing.

He claimed that  his  drug, which could cure a whole emergency room-full of ailments, had already proved itself by curing his relatives of HIV and cancer. It seemed to zap all manner of offending microbes, a sort of elixir of life that was an armoury of silver bullets against all manner of diseases.

I did not believe him. For starters, Nyandarua County is a biodiversity wasteland due to intense farming. Its land has been given over to fields for livestock grazing, while its crops have been destroyed and all you see are blue gum trees, maize and Napier grass. Even the weeds all look alike.

NO MONEY IN CURES

Any plant with medicinal use in Nyandarua has long been uprooted in favour of maize or pasture.

Here was an expert in the biological sciences pretending that to have a single cure for the different cancers. Cancer comes in various forms, so it can’t have one cure.

He reminded me of Prof Arthur Obel of Pearl Omega fame, who also discovered a “cure” for HIV. Both gentlemen have impeccable academic qualifications in medical-related fields, yet turned their backs on scientific rigor to peddle untested herbs.

Like Prof Obel, he refused to submit documentation to the Pharmacies and Poisons Board (PPB) because he feared they might steal his intellectual property.

Why would men of scientific standing in society refuse to submit to the rigors of the disciplines that accorded them position in society?

I sensed an undercurrent of hucksterism about him. He was tired of churning academic papers and generating knowledge and now wanted his big pay-off.

He also had another reason he didn’t let on immediately. Apparently, the case in which Prof Obel was accused of attempted murder was orchestrated by powerful drug companies.

There is a sort of pharmaceutical illuminati that bumps off people who stray too close to the cure of chronic diseases. -

You see, there is more money to be made in a hospice than a hospital; antiretrovirals are more valuable than the cure. So people who discover cures for chronic diseases are in mortal danger. At this point, I excused myself and left, promising to call him.

In Kenya, we seem to have a plague of charlatans claiming miraculous cures for all diseases within very short periods.

There is a lot of money in selling false hope. All you need is a lab coat, a bag full of weeds and the title “clinic” above your shop.

When it comes to herbalists, there are concerns about safety, standardisation and the  possible adverse effects their medicines.

There are also exaggerated claims regarding the drugs and their inefficacy.

At best, the drugs they sell are a placebo, at their worst, they are poisonous. 

DANGEROUS COCKTAILS

Medical cocktails are dangerous. Herbs and some of these alternative medicines can interfere with regular drugs and cause harm. There is no alternative medicine, nor is there complimentary medicine; there is only medicine. Either the drug works and gets incorporated into the national drug supply, or it doesn’t.

I was dismayed when I looked at PPB guidelines on “complimentary medicine”. They give the same weight to personal experience as scientific clinical trials. They also grant widespread traditional use of the drug as possible proof of efficacy. Many of the so-called treatments and cures for diseases used in the past were harmful. For example, syphilis was treated using mercury before the discovery of penicillin. So people were poisoned under the guise of being treated. 

Therefore, individual experience, herbalist testimony and traditional practice should never be considered when determining the effectiveness of a drug. Only statistics from clinical trials, with their thoroughness and objectivity, can attest to efficacy and safety. A collection of anecdotes involving your grandmother can never challenge the superiority of data.

Trials are expensive and time consuming, but they represent the best hope for treatment.

Many drugs are derived from plants. Aspirin and quinine are from barks while painkillers are derived from opium, but they also have side-effects. All drugs that work have known dangers, yet I have never seen a herbal medicine advertised that has side effects. Why don’t our herbalists’ drugs have known adverse effects?

In fact, the only way to make a totally safe drug is to make it absolutely useless. For example, the water given by Mzee Ambilikile Mwasapile in Loliondo. Totally safe, but totally useless as well.

Doctors are reprimanded when something goes wrong but these herbalists are allowed to get away with murder.

It is also doubtful that herbalists can manufacture drugs of the same quality, in the same  environment, and of the same concentration consistently. Varying concentrations in drugs are potentially lethal. Also to consider are the conditions the plant is grown under, such as pollution by heavy metals or pesticides.

In the case of some disease, we have drugs that work. In case of diseases where tried, tested drugs with known risks and benefits are known, why should we roll the dice with all manner of potions?

Empiricism is our guide in life. We test,  evaluate, measure then  regulate. Of course, we have to be sceptical. Even with drugs given by a doctor, we should read about the  potential adverse effects indicated. 

It is better to have no medicine than to take poison, which is why we should ban these quacks and their snake oils.

The PPB and Ministry of Health should end this nonsense. Kenyans shouldn’t be poisoned when they seek medicine.

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WAR ON VEHICLES?

Auction, don’t destroy vehicles carrying drugs

First, the government blew up ships caught transporting drugs. Kajiado County has threatened to do the same to vehicles.

It is a silly thing to do. “Hard drugs” in Kenya include marijuana, which is legal in more than 20 countries, and whose effects on individuals and society are milder than alcohol. Until a logical classification of drugs is done, we risk criminalising minor infractions.

Secondly, you can rent out your vehicle, which can be used for ferrying drugs; should it be destroyed as a result?  What about planes? If a plane is found with drugs, will it similarly be flown into a building since this now seems to be government policy? Planes are usually very expensive and bought using multiple loans.

 Third, the legal process followed while sinking the two drug ships was murky. The cornerstone of our democracy is a fetishisation of private property.  Business cannot move forward if the government can simply appropriate stuff at will and destroy it.

Finally can’t the cars, ships, planes or boats involved be auctioned off rather than destroyed in such dramatic fashion.

 

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MORAL DUTY

As a maker of weapons, Europe ought to take in more refugees

If someone walks into your house with a rock and a stick and threatens you and your wife, you can pick up a rock and a stick and fight him off. But when someone sends an armoured personnel carrier with guns, you flee.

Europe should take in more refugees because it sells the most guns to the world. It arms the warlords who start the wars.

Four of the top five arms dealers in the world are European. Germany has no army to speak of, but is number three on the arms sales chart in the world. David Cameron travels around the world with an entourage of arms salesmen ready to sell British guns. French arms are a big source of employment to the country.

If you sell guns, you have a moral duty to accept those fleeing the guns. After all, Europe is the land of milk and money. It has lakes of milk and mountains of butter. It pays its farmers billions of dollars not to produce anything. It can afford more mouths to feed.

Then come the destitute, the hungry, the poor and it lets them die on its shores.

This is the continent that gave us  enlightenment but it seems like it is going back to the Dark Ages.