Accra — Africa needs to develop standards to assure the safety and benefit of its herbal medicines, says Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of Mauritius.
According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of the world's population depend on medicinal plants for their primary healthcare.
Speaking during the Center for Pharmaceutical Advancement and Training (CePAT) awards for 2017 in Ghana, last week (14 January), Gurib-Fakim also paid tribute to African women "for their relentless effort towards the promotion of traditional [herbal] medicines".
CePAT is the US Pharmacopoeial Convention capacity building program site based in Ghana.
"African women have been at the centre of the continental developmental agenda, but their contributions have rarely been valued and recognised," she says.
Gurib-Fakim, who was honoured with CePAT Honours Lifetime Achievement Award, says herbal medicines have been the mainstay of economies of Africa.
CePAT honours, which are biennial awards launched in 2014 by the US Pharmacopoeial Convention's CePAT, acknowledges valuable contributions of African female agents of change and celebrate their contribution in global health.
The other award recipients were Gugu Nolwandle Mahlangu, director-general of Zimbabwe Medicines Control Authority, Malebona Precious Matsoso, director-general of the South Africa's National Department of Health, a and Clavenda Bright-Parker, former head of Liberia's Medicines and Health Product Regulatory Authority. They were honoured with the Acknowledge, Celebrate and Empower Award.
The USP-CePAT mission is to build a strong, sustainable global health workforce to meet Africa's needs. That goal can only be accomplished by the full participation of women at all levels, from technical positions to leadership," says Emily Kaine, USP senior vice president for global health, in a statement.
According to Gurib-Fakim, indigenous medicine remains the most important form of treatment, and culturally accepted practice of a diverse local health system yet African herbal medicine relies mainly on wild harvested plants with sustainability causing concern.
"Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands contain around 60,000 species of higher plants - roughly a quarter of the world's total. Yet, in spite of this diversity, [the region] has contributed only less than 8 per cent of the total 1,100 medicinal plants commercialised internationally," says Gurib-Fakim, adding that medicinal plants account for over 40 per cent of licensed drugs.
Gurib-Fakim indicated that important conventional medicines for curing major diseases are from traditional herbs, citing the antimalarial Artemisinin extracted from Artemisin annua.
Whereas there is a place for standardised extracts of medicinal plants in primary healthcare systems, Gurib-Fakim notes: "The pace of growth, however, has been slow because of lack of robust standards to guide their manufacture and use. This is especially true for many important African medicinal plants.
She says that without standards there can be no guarantee of quality, safety and positive health outcomes.
She is calling for the development of structures, institutions and consolidation of human capacity to not only ensure that traditional medicines are safe, efficacious and of good quality, but also for documenting these traditional practices.
Matsoso adds: "We need to see more women in health leadership, research and development coming up with ground-breaking research efforts to ... cure diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries."
She suggests the development of technologies that can be used to solve basic problems for women in their professions.
Matsoso explains that the achievements for which the awards were given shows the commitment of African women in addressing health problems facing many people and making the world a better place to live, especially in improving health standards and ensuring wellness in the society.
Disclaimer: The US Pharmacopoeial Convention sponsored Ochieng' Ogodo to attend the event in Accra, Ghana.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.