The safe use of herbal medicine has become a critical subject in the country in recent times in the wake of the rising cases of non-communicable diseases such as kidney and liver conditions. While some practitioners advertise a wide range of cures in both open and obscure corners of cities and towns, there is no certainty about their safety.
They come as alternative choices to the orthodox prescriptions, with affordable value and the added edge hinges on the psychologically acclaimed potency of the local medicines. The Head of Research and Innovation at the Centre for Plant Medicine Research (CPMR), Dr Kofi Donkor, has said all herbal medicines, like any other forms of medicines, are potential poison.
He said their safety depended on whether they had been approved, and then being taken according to the recommended dosage. “Due to economic issues, people who have some information about herbs, such as the fact that neem can clear malaria, prepare ‘potential poison’ in the name of herbal medicine without following laid down scientific procedures for preparation and approval,” Dr Donkor said.
“Some (knowledge of herbal medicines) are handed over from one generation to another and the formulae are not declared for fear that they may lose revenue if the intellectual property is shared. “Unlike regulated pharmaceutical drugs, some herbal products often lack standardisation in terms of dosage, purity and potency, adequate labelling and the absence of appropriate patient information,” he said.
Dr Donkor said people who prepared concoctions that were not under the radii of regulators either did not provide the recommended dose or did not have scientific backing for the dosages they prescribed. He, therefore, called on the public to ensure that all medications they patronised, particularly herbal medicines, were approved by the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA). “Equally important, we must also ensure that we follow through the prescribed dosage strictly to avoid any adverse effects,” he stressed.
The Head of Research and Innovation at CPMR also cautioned the public against buying even approved herbal medicines from suspicious sources and said all herbal medicines approved by the FDA were subjected to rigorous verification processes before approval was given to ensure safety when dosage was adhered to. He said such medications could be accessed from all approved pharmacies and other accredited pharmaceutical outlets. “If we do these two safety things, we should be fine with any herbal or orthodox medication. The abuse of herbal medication is a problem stakeholders are battling with. The best we can do and have been doing is to educate the public on the responsible use of herbal medicines,” Dr Donkor added.
Like many other medications, health experts say abuse could mean taking an overdose of an approved or not-approved herbal medicine either deliberately under the misconception of boosting efficacy. Others also hold the perception that they were natural and did not have side effects. Other forms of abuse include taking herbal medicines that have not been scientifically tested and approved.
Checks by the Daily Graphic, particularly from monitoring the operations of itinerant herbal medicine dealers, have established that herbal medicines have gained popularity in modern times because they are thought to be natural, with no side effects.
Kofi Agyeman, an itinerant herbal medicines dealer who operates the “Yareɛ Last Stop” at the Tema Station in Accra, was heard saying that one of the three medications he sold could heal malaria, and typhoid fever, among other diseases. He said he had others for hypertension, diabetes, piles, and joint aches, among others.
Like a few others that the Daily Graphic observed, their advertising message was that the medications were purely herbal, and, therefore, did not have any side effects. They claimed that if anyone used their medicines and they did not cure the ailment or the patient experienced any adverse effects, they could return for a full refund. Another, who introduced himself as Elder, also had a similar message for his medications, which he said cured diabetes. Kofi also sold an herbal aphrodisiac and had a similar convincing message of “no side effects because it was purely herbal-based”.
A consultant physician and kidney specialist at the Department of Medicine, Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Dr Winfred Baah, said people were mixing concoctions for people to take without any scientific basis. “People are just mixing concoctions in the name of preparing herbal medicines and deceiving people that herbs do not have or have very minimal side effects,” he stated.
He said cases of kidney diseases were increasing, particularly among the younger generation, due to drug and herbal medication abuse, and advised that everyone should go for regular check-ups, keep healthy lifestyles and make conscious efforts to maintain a healthy kidney.
Dr Baah explained that most orthodox medications were made from herbs, which contained some level of toxins, and that was why dosages and expiry dates were provided to avoid abuse that could lead to complications. “It is necessary to have full knowledge of the drugs that we are taking. Consult your doctor for expert advice on the drugs you are taking, both orthodox and herbal,” he said, adding that “people with kidney diseases should be more cautious with medications.”
Dr Baah said people with chronic kidney disease, liver failure and other chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and hepatitis should be cautious in using herbal medicines as residues from herbal medicines could complicate such conditions. He said apart from the physical pain involved, treating kidney disease was time-consuming and financially draining, and therefore, required every effort to reduce vulnerability.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said as the global use of herbal medicinal products continues to grow and many more new products are introduced into the market, public health issues and concerns surrounding their safety are also increasingly recognised. It said although some herbal medicines had promising potential and were widely used, many of them remained untested and their use was also not monitored, making knowledge of their potential adverse effects very limited.
Traditional and alternative medicine have been proven to be potent and reliable, and are currently adopted into the local healthcare delivery system. However, the abuse of herbal preparations is also resulting in a high prevalence of kidney and liver diseases, particularly among the youth.
The Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) and the CPMR have improved research in herbal medicines. The introduction of a degree programme in herbal medicine at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) may have elevated credibility in the use of herbal medicines in Ghana. However health experts have explained that many herbal medications on the open market have no scientific basis in terms of their preparation and required dosage, hence their safety cannot be guaranteed.
By: Doreen Andoh