Since access to quality healthcare delivery seems elusive in Nigeria, many are running to herbal medicine practitioners, who cashed in on the opportunity to promote and popularise their trade.
In Lagos State, for instance, herbal medicine men boldly come out en masse from the cocoons of their simple 'clinics' to gain street limelight promoting many products, which have gained new heights in patronage by people of different ages, gender, education and income levels.
At Mushin, Agege, Ojo, Badagry and Mile 12, areas which Daily Independent visited, scores of herbal drug marketers are seen displaying processed and semi-processed medicines which they claim could cure pile, hypertension, diabetes, malaria, hernia, diarrhoea, gonorrheoea, infertility and many other ailments.
Sule Wonaka, indigene of Zamfara State, who has been marketing herbal drugs in Lagos since 2000, boasted the power of herbs to cure all ailments. According to the 30-year-old, he inherited knowledge about traditional medicine from his grandfather, who taught him, "herbal remedies for irregular menstruation, ovarian cysts, tooth ache, deafness, skin diseases, fibroids and barreness." Confidently, he added: "I can use the root of plantain, extracts from cabbage leaves and bitter leaf to treat obesity and diabetes."
Investigations revealed that all the herbal medicine traders have bottles loaded with pieces of wood and medicinal powder which they stated if blended with water, lime, lemon juice, citrus or strong spirit become therapeutic wonder.
A co-trader, who plies his trade at the popular Mile 12 Market, is Ibrahim Borno. He explained that the bark, wood and latex of Iroko, a popular tree in the rain forest of Nigeria, can be used for the treatment of hernia while its powdered bark is used as antiseptic or for wound or dressing. Bark of oak, teak, acacia, bramble, nim, shea butter and rubber trees are said to be raw materials for health-giving drugs.
Middle-aged Fatimo Salawu was holding a jar of herbal drug bought at Iyana Oba, Ojo, Lagos, when Daily Independent accosted her sometimes ago. The mother of four disclosed that her ailment was painful monthly periods which western medicine could not alleviate satisfactorily. "But since I started taking this herb about seven months ago, I enjoy comfort and peace whenever my 'visitor' arrives," she said.
But the medical challenge of 38-year-old Queen Okafor, who lives at Idi-Oro, Mushin, Lagos, is not related with body pain, but infertility, an emotional trauma, especially in African society that cherishes children and considers infertile women almost as social misfits. Even though she bought herbal drug, she confided in the reporter that she just wanted to experiment or test its efficacy because doctors had tried their possible best on her health in the past eight years, without no cheery result yet. "I have been married for eight years now, but I have never been able to conceive despite visiting many hospitals and doing many tests which have proved that my general condition was satisfactory, my pelvic examination normal; even my husband's semen analysis showed no abnormality," she sadly told Daily Independent.
Not only trado-medical practitioners believe that herbs can make an infertile woman productive, but men of God quote Ezekiel 47:12, Genesis 1:29 and Revelation 22:2, verses of the holy book that attest that plant are created for sustenance and improving health. In his book on the efficacy of herbs in healing entitled Nature Power, Reverend Father Anselm Adodo stated that kola pods, raw eggs, juice of lime, water and honey can be used to produce herbal remedy for infertility. Some herbalists have also claimed that the seed of cherry can be useful in curing impotence.
Though doctors believe in the curative potential of herbs, nephrologists implore Nigerians to be wary of abuse of herbal medicine because it can result in kidney damage. According to them, management of kidney disease attracts huge financial burden. For example dialysis costs about N80, 000 per week while kidney transplant costs about N7m.
They also warned that many herbal medicines abused or blended with strong alcohol are toxic and could result into heart failure or seizure, lower breathing rate and ultimately cause death.
Two out of the six men, patrons of herbal medicine traders Daily Independent interviewed, said they suffer from relapsing typhoid fever and acute dysentery. They complained that the cost of hospital treatment of their cases was exorbitant. Also called hemorrhoids, piles are caused by excessive pressure in the rectum. Four men, who have lost hope in western medicine as a solution to their ailments, prefer anti-piles herbs which cost almost N2,000 per bottle. One of them, Ayodele Eshinola, a carpenter, said the drug also functions as aphrodisiac because it corrects erectile dysfunction or failed manhood erection, a widely believed consequence of chronic piles. Eshinola confirmed: "herbal medicine is more effective for piles' treatment than western medicine." He confessed spending a fortune in hospitals without improvement or cure to his health challenge. Another piles sufferer, Ayobami Omoyajowo, corroborated Eshinola, saying "the disease makes manhood turgid during sexual relations."
These men's reasons could have informed why those who trade in piles-treating herbal drugs in the metropolis - at roadsides, on train and public buses, local markets and bus stops - lace their advertisement messages with lewd phrases and sensuous images that evoke erotic feelings.
Although no woman was seen demanding piles herbs, but Mustapha Ilyasu, a street herbal products seller at Ipaja Road, Agege, said some women also buy it mostly for their "husbands' 'man power'" and "to facilitate mutual sexual pleasure," he added.
It is however doubtful if every herbal medicine is effective or does what its producer advertises because in the past few years, there has been numberless traditional medicine practitioners making products which they claim have panacea for many ailments, but which opened the gate of early graves or sentenced many lives to protracted illness because of adulterated active ingredients, abuse or misuse by buyers. Moreover many charlatans or impostors, who consider the trade more a money spinner instead of a life-saver, craftily defraud about 80 per cent of Nigerians who depend on herbs to cure simple ailments.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has the responsibility to regulate quackery in herbal medicine practice, but it is doubtful if it can control the large population of herbal practitioners. Nonetheless in Lagos, a law governing traditional medicine practice came into being in 2000. The law which is part of Lagos State 'Health Reform Bill' is enforced by the Traditional Medicine Board. It states that a practitioner must be registered, but flouting this rule attracts three months in prison or an option of fine to the tune of N25, 000. It is however doubtful if the law is well executed because many itinerant herbal drug sellers still sell in many streets and public places paraga, the concocted herbals, already banned in the state because it is heavily laced with strong alcohol.
"A drug," according to Olalekan Ayorinde, a pharmacist, "is any substance that in small amount produces significant changes in the body mind or both. If properly used, it can improve health and the quality of lives, but misused, it can be unsafe" This definition, because it fails to adequately and clearly distinguish drugs from some foods and fruits therefore makes garlic, ginger and grape, which have been discovered to have powerful antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal characteristics, to be regarded as drugs. Small wonder, most herbal drug sellers also advertise onions, lemon, palm kernel, pear, African cucumber, honey and alovera because of their medicinal properties and curative potentials.
Ayorinde however explained that the difference between a therapeutic drug and a poison is hazy. "All drugs become poison in high enough doses, and many poisons are useful drugs in low doses," the pharmacist explained.
Health care is a serious issue determining the wealth of nations and well-being of men, but because incessant doctors' strikes and cash and carry health care system of the nation drive many to the herbal drugs market, users of drug plants or herbal medicine must understand that drugs are neither good or bad, but powerful substances that can be put to good or bad uses. Therefore, they need to come to terms with their current fascination for herbal drugs.