June 17, 2024

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Scientists call for accessibility to traditional medicines

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African university scientists have expressed the urgent need to collaborate to strengthen the human resource capacity of researchers and other experts in traditional medicine and primary healthcare. Traditional remedies are a key to unlocking health challenges in Africa, hence the need for reinforcement to ensure quality control and accessibility to the needy population.

The scientists expressed the resolve at a recent two-day workshop with the theme, ‘Artificial Intelligence, Computational and Medicinal Chemistry-based Approaches for Antiviral Drug Discovery’ at the University of Buea Center for Drug Discovery (UB-CeDD) in Cameroon.

“Scientists need to build a strong foundation for African traditional drug discovery and development on the continent in line with the recommendation on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) African Traditional Medicine Day celebrated annually on 31 August,” Professor Michael Ekonde Sone, deputy vice-chancellor in charge of teaching, professionalisation and development of ICTs at the University of Buea, said at the close of the workshop.

The workshop, he said, provided a platform for microbiologists, chemists and modellers to come together and share ideas on how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies can identify new drug candidates from natural products.

Clinical trial protocols

Dr Ian Tietjen, research assistant professor at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, United States, pointed out the need for scientists and students in primary healthcare to keep abreast of the ethnopharmacology, ethnobotany and clinical trial protocols of traditional medicines. “Such training and production control through chemical and biological tests will help improve the quality and availability of traditional-based medicines to the population at affordable rates,” he said.

Professor Fidele Ntie-Kang, head of the UB-CeDD, said the centre was created in 2022 to provide opportunities for university experts, students and scientists to improve and share knowledge about traditional medicines. The centre, one of the first in the Central African sub-region, operates a laboratory for drug discovery in Africa by Africans, he told the media at the close of the workshop.

“Considering that drug discovery is costly and requires the collaboration of scientists, researchers and other specialists, the centre serves as an interface for scientists in Africa and beyond,” he said.

Since its inception, scientists have collaborated with peers from the US and Spain, as well as other African countries to enrich training and research about natural traditional medicines.

Experts say many African countries are increasingly taking an interest in improving traditional medicines, making them accessible and affordable to the population, given the high cost of modern medicines.

‘Beacon of accessibility’

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a message on Traditional Medicine Day 2023 that, “African traditional medicine, deeply intertwined with indigenous herbalism and rooted in the tapestry of African spirituality and culture, stands as a beacon of accessibility, affordability and trust for millions across our continent.” Approximately 80% of the African population use traditional medicine for their fundamental health needs. “African traditional medicines embody our identity, resilience, and heritage,” she said.

Professor Simon Efange, chair of the Chemical Bioactivity Information Centre hosted in the department of chemistry at the University of Buea, lauded the increasing collaboration among the African university community of medicinal chemists, AI-ML experts, microbiologists, biochemists, natural product experts, and plant taxonomists whose quest is to discover new therapies based on naturally occurring compounds and other sources for diseases that primarily affect Africans.

“We can only make things better if we collaborate and work together. The different stakeholders, scientists, researchers and traditional practitioners must work in synergy to improve healthcare in Africa,” he said.

Against the backdrop of the ravaging effects of COVID-19, Cameroon’s parliament in 2020 recommended the complementarity between conventional and traditional medicine in a bid to make healthcare delivery accessible and affordable to Cameroonians, CRTV reported on 20 June 2020. Introducing phototherapy in the syllabus of higher learning institutions was also recommended.

Most medications imported

According to the news report, 85% to 90% of medication used in Cameroon is imported, which has a huge financial impact on the population. “Between 2015 and 2019, medicament imports in Cameroon were worth CFA372 billion (US$598 million) and, if traditional medicine is improved, the rate of importation will be reduced.”

Traditional medicine practitioners in Cameroon acknowledge the progress in collaboration with the government and modern medicine experts, expressing the hope that their indigenous knowledge could be given the chance to blossom.

“There is progress in the collaboration with traditional medicine practitioners. Our treatment is not just limited to the drugs we produce. There is also the tradi-spiritual, the ancestral powers that are elements in our treatment procedure,” Dr Fru Richard, a traditional practitioner in Buea, told University World News.

Scientists at the Buea workshop also emphasised the importance of valorising indigenous knowledge and resources from natural products like plants that have been used over many years in traditional medicine but have not been channelled to the point at which they can be supplied to pharmacies and accessed by the population.

“Africa is making progress in recognising and adding value to indigenous traditional medicine know-how. This is commendable,” Dr Gemma Turon Rodrigo, co-founder and CEO of the Ersilia Open Source Initiative, said at the workshop.

Integration of traditional medicine

Moeti said in his message that 25 countries in the WHO Africa region have now integrated traditional medicine into their health sciences curricula. Another 20 have established training programmes for traditional health practitioners and health sciences students to strengthen human resources in both traditional medicine and primary healthcare, while 39 countries have developed legal frameworks for traditional health practitioners.

He called on member states to “scale up their efforts and further implement evidence-based traditional medicine approaches to achieve the health-related sustainable development goals and promote health and well-being for all, at all ages”.


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