By Chioma Obinna
It is no longer news that herbal drugs are indiscriminately hawked and illegally sold at any point across Nigeria despite the serious health risks it poses.
Although agencies saddled with the responsibility to improve on natural medicines are working tirelessly on it for proper documentation of the discovered raw materials, the indiscriminate hawking of these products in public places such as motor parks, open markets, buses and along the streets has made the control and regulation of these products difficult.
Today, while other countries of the world are working towards standardising their products, in Nigeria, human activities among other factors are rubbishing efforts of agencies to develop, grow the sector as well as build confidence in herbal medicine.
Sunday Vanguard spoke to the Director-General of the Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency, NNMDA, Dr. Sam Etatuvie, on the subject.
He highlighted the challenges facing herbal medicine sector including implications of irrational use and sale of the natural products.
His views: “From the figures from the country’s Bureau of Statistics, over 80 percent of Nigerians use traditional medicines. Researches by other organisations have also pointed to that. Globally, it is said that about 4 billion people patronise the use of plants to meet their primary healthcare needs. It is also an incontrovertible fact that traditional medicine has recorded meaningful and notable contributions that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand in healthcare delivery systems not only in Nigeria but in other African countries.
”As a research institute, we have carried out a series of training across the country.
“We have trained over 2,400 practitioners across the country. We have carried out zonal training across the country on capacity building for practitioners. In the past three years with support from the Federal Ministry of Science Technology, we have increased funding to create an enabling environment for staff to work. We are also developing laboratories for our in-house and other herbal researchers. We are hoping that by next year the laboratory will be ready for use.
“Irrational use of traditional medicine is the same thing as the irrational use of other products that are used to moderate your health situation. A lot of activities and interactions have been taking place in terms of control of drugs. Different agencies have been doing that and recently President Buhari also set up a committee on drug abuse.
“ We felt that enough focus has not been put in control Agbo that people hawk around. From my experience and my interactions with many people, some of the things they hawk are potential dangers to the health of Nigerians. Even the way those products are packaged, if you see them moving around, you will find how these products are packaged in plastic bottles with different colours, you see blue, red, black, many of them are chemicals. They are dispensed into nylon and in most cases these products are hot and they are also moved under the hot sun, so the temperature is always not good for our people.
Weed, ethanol, potash
“Then, there is what is called leeching, as you pour it into that nylon there are chemicals that will leak from the nylon especially when it dissolves into the product and I am very sure that certain things like weed, ethanol, potash are also put into those products and it causes addiction and abuse. Some of those things can cause a problem for the kidney.
The caliber of people that takes these things is Okada riders and Danfo drivers. Many of these workers will want something that will boost their energy and they can work from morning till night without feeling tired. It is also not healthy and we also found out that some of the things used in preparing those herbs have the potentials of damaging key organs of the body.
“Our mandate is to make sure that we interface with the various groups, especially the herbs sellers that provide the raw materials for the people that make Agbo and also to interface with the people that sell the agbo around, advise them, educate them and let them know that they may be working but there are also some dangers in what they are doing.
We know the economy is difficult and people want to earn livelihood but there are better ways of presenting these products to the public. We feel that public sensitisation is very important and that is why we are interfacing with the media to bring out this information. We are thinking that it will be more regular as one of our major works in the agency. People should go to herbs sellers who will portion it and give them to cook. No one can guarantee what is in the cooked one.
“At the National Council of Health, there have been efforts to encourage state governments to establish traditional medicine boards. As of today, I don’t think we have up to 10 states that have been able to establish this board. If we have a board it will be able to regulate the activities of the practitioners under its national umbrella and it will reduce indiscriminate hawking of Agbo.
At the national level, there was an attempt to have a council for traditional medicine but because of the disunity, it was difficult pushing the council through the National Assembly. Once we have the council, there will be regulatory laws.
Shortage of raw materials
“Access to raw materials is becoming very difficult due to human activities. We are interfacing with herbs sellers to see how we can increase access to raw materials. We are concentrating on that because the country is just developing a national strategy for competitiveness in raw materials and product development.
“There is an increase in the production cost of pharmaceutical products in Nigeria because they are unable to access raw materials here and the cost of importing the raw materials is high.
The Nigerian government is trying to diversify the economy and reduce the importation of the things that could be produced in Nigeria.
“If you go through the big shops, you will see different things, some of them have NAFDAC numbers. Drugs these days are coming either from India or China. We also found out that Nigeria has more biodiversity in those countries. We believe there must be a deliberate effort to draw everybody’s attention to the fact that we have a shortage of raw materials and the need to go into the cultivation of these plants.
“As an agency, we have done documentation around the country and we have published them with their local names and botanical names. We are also developing what we call growers’ manual. We are encouraging both the youths and the women as they cultivate food plants, they should also make an effort to cultivate herbal plants.
Also, the collection method of plants is important. It is easy to cultivate these materials but to preserve the chemical contents of these raw materials, there must be a time to collect it to be able to have the proper active ingredients in the plant. We are also appealing to the government that the time has come for us to have a special market to ensure the condition of storage of the medicinal plants is met.’’