A conflict among doctors that has seen the withdrawal of children cough medicine throughout the Kenya has boosted the campaign by Kenyan herbalists to enter the multi-billion dollar international trade on herbs and traditional medicine.
A section of Kenyan doctors comprising mainly of respiratory disease specialists, have said children cough syrups are at best a worthless expense. And the doctors have gone ahead to give parents formulas for traditional preparations using honey, lemon and warm water as an alternative “without dangerous side effects”.
The group, referring to itself as the respiratory diseases lobby, told journalists that the medicine don’t cure and have significant side-effects that even lead to death when administered to children less than 12 years of age.
They said studies which compared the effectiveness of the children cough medicine, honey and placebo, consistently found honey to be more effective while the medicine was useless.
Although these claims have been refuted by pharmaceutical companies with the support of various doctors’ organization, the medicine has been withdrawn from most hospitals and pharmacies throughout the country.
The campaign was kicked off when a leading hospital, the Aga Khan University hospital, said it had stopped issuing the colds and cough medicine to children because they have no curative value. Following closely, the country’s leading children hospital, Gertrude’s Children Hospital, said it had withdrawn the medicine from its pharmacy. And then the largest hospital in the country, the Kenyatta National Hospital, a teaching hospital for the prestigious University of Nairobi School of Medicine, announced it actually had stopped using the medicine 12 years ago because “the medicines are useless.”Herbalists Boosted
The campaign left herbalists amused and happy. Disparagingly labeled “witchdoctors” and harassed out of business by the colonial British government to create room and market for European doctors and medicines, herbalists have suffered years of neglect by post colonial governments. Many of them resorted to underground methods of using their talents and skills while others opened up churches where the cloak of Christianity enabled them to market themselves as faith healers.
In the past few years however, many of them have come up in a renewed effort to reclaim their place in society. They have flooded public transport, radio and TV stations, and with loud speakers fixed atop vehicles, their loud messages are spreading in all urban centers in Kenya.
They have come armed with technical language, technology, knowledge about the functioning of the human body and knowledge about strengths and weaknesses of modern medicine.
And what is more, they have now been joined by qualified doctors – some university professors -disillusioned by modern medicine and overwhelmed by the desire “to advance the knowledge, skills and practices that our forefathers used to diagnose and treat and to maintain health.”
“We have always said the same things that the doctors are now saying, that most of these medicines are poisons, but no one has wanted to take us seriously,” one herbalist told a small crowd of enthusiastic listeners in the eastern province town of Machakos.
According to Bioline International, more than 90 per cent of African populations depend on traditional medicine for primary health care. “In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that one Western trained physician treats about 40,000 while one traditional healer treats about 400 patients,” the organization says.
Noting that world trade on herbs and traditional medicines had increased world wide, the World Health Organizations (WHO) says that in Europe alone it exceeded US $5 billion in 2003-2004. “In China, sales of products totaled US$ 14 billion in 2005. Herbal medicine revenue in Brazil was US$ 160 million in 2007,” says WHO.
The African herbalist is, however, locked out of this lucrative international trade.