Should we embrace traditional medicine more?


Sometime around the month of October 2002, I went to see a former boss and friend, who was then a customer relations manager at Nigerian German Chemicals (NGC), in Ikeja.  After our discussion, he stood up to see me off but paused and pointed to two little red rashes on my cheek, asking if I had noticed them. I answered in the affirmative, adding that I suspected them to be pimples which should soon dry off. He told me to do a checkup because the rashes looked like the onset of measles. I was taken aback as I had always assumed only children were susceptible to measles. Still, I thanked him for his suggestion and left.

As I had some serious commitments that day, I forgot about our discussion. I had a very busy day and returned to my home in Ikeja late in the night. However, when I woke up the next morning, the number of rashes on my body had increased and I was also having a slight fever. It was then I decided to go to the clinic.  Accompanied by my elder brother, a policeman, I proceeded to the Nigeria Police Force Clinic in Ikeja, where a doctor, after examining me, gave me drugs and administered an injection. He also prescribed calamine lotion.

I left the hospital, went to a pharmacy and bought the Calamine lotion. I commenced treatment immediately I got home. I took my drugs and applied the lotion. I was hopeful the measles would clear off quickly, but I was wrong. By the next morning, despite taking my medication religiously, I had been completely stricken with the measles, which had spread to every part of my body. I was also having a more serious fever and the discomfort I felt was intense.           I was indoors throughout as I was not presentable for any social interaction. I however managed to go to the hospital to take my injection as scheduled, after which I returned home and continued with my medication.

Three days after, there was still no respite. I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite. The fever was more unbearable and the measles spots were everywhere on my body. I looked in the mirror and a total stranger stared back at me. The measles had completely changed the me that I knew.  At this point, I completely lost confidence in the orthodox treatment.

Even though my neighbour had earlier told me I should not bother going to the hospital to treat the condition and that all I needed was bitter leaf and alcohol extract concoction, I had simply dismissed the idea. However, as my frustration over the condition became intolerable, I told my brother I wanted to try the concoction. He advised me to go see that neighbour of mine.

I swallowed my pride and did as advised. My neighbour initially laughed at me but then asked for N200 to procure the bitter leaf and alcohol. About an hour later, she was back. She used the two items to prepare a concoction for me. She asked me to rub some on my body and also drink a little, if I could. I thanked her and complied.

Few minutes after using the concoction as instructed, I dozed off and  slept for over four hours – the first time I was having such a blissfully relaxing sleep in one week. When I woke up, the fever had disappeared and I felt so much better. I was even hungry. I was surprised, having not been interested in food for days.

I felt foolish for initially refusing to consider the alternative to the orthodox treatment for the condition. Within three days, of using the concoction the measles had disappeared from my skin and I was well again.

That incident completely changed my attitude to herbal preparation. I had never liked herbal or traditional medicine, and my distaste for it is deep-rooted in my early childhood experience concerning it.

While growing up in my hometown in Osun State between the late 70s and early 80s, there was an herbal preparation often given to young children called “agbo Ile tutu”. The taste was beyond bitter; it was atrocious. And I became even more repulsed when I learnt that part of the ingredients used for it was cow urine.  I was never able to find out if this was true but the fact is that I never liked the concoction even though I was forced to take it on a number of occasions. I grew up hating anything herbal or traditional medicine.

My brush with measles however made me to start having a rethink. Since then, I have developed better appreciation of the benefits of herbal and traditional medicines. Indeed, over the years, herbal medicine has evolved.  It is now getting significant attention as a major component of global health care delivery strategy. Many herbal preparations are now being approved by reputable regulatory agencies, including the FDA, for prevention, improvement or treatment of various physical and mental health conditions.

Asian countries like China have multimillion-dollar herbal medicine industries that are flooding markets around the world with reputable herbal products from their continent.  According to a recent WHO report, the worldwide annual market for these products is now about 60 billion US dollars.

Even though, WHO estimates say about 80 per cent of African populations use some form of traditional herbal medicine, the fact is that a lot needs to be done to standardise the practice to make it play the critical role it should be playing in health care delivery in the continent. Already, health experts and nutritionists are emphasising that herbal medicine  may actually be a key part of the future of healthcare system as more people understand and embrace the health potentials of herbs, natural fruits and vegetables.

A lot is presently being done to expand the scope of traditional and herbal medicine in Nigeria, with NAFDAC already evaluating and granting regulatory approvals to some of the products manufactured in Nigeria. However, there is need to comprehensively expand the framework of herbal and traditional medicine. It is still a largely untapped goldmine. It can contribute a lot more to not just health care delivery but also the economy. It is high time we embraced it holistically.