Developing herbal medicine in Nigeria

Kaine Agary

Surgery
The Voom Foundation alone has brought several support facilities that have reduced the cost of the surgery. PHOTO: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Some years before I had my son, I had started to suffer considerably from uterine fibroids. Occurring predominantly in black women, I knew many women (family and friends) who had gone through the physical struggle with the condition – dealing with heavy monthly periods and anaemia, and sometimes infertility. Some of my friends had undergone surgical procedures (myomectomy) to remove these abnormal growths, and some others were being managed without surgery. For one of my friends, the fibroid surgery was not the end of her problems.

Scar tissue from the surgery obstructed blood flow to her small intestine, causing it to begin to die off. She needed more surgery to remove the scar tissue and then further surgery to remove more fibroids. An aunt of mine died a few days after fibroid surgery.

When my condition started getting more serious I was afraid. I did not want to go back to the gynaecologist and be told that I needed surgery. So I started searching for alternative remedies and came across something called Fertility Massage Therapy (FMT). This remedy was not cheap at an average $200 per 60-minute session. The more I read about FMT, the more foolish I felt. What I was looking for in far away America was in my back yard.

I grew up with my grandparents, two people very proud of their Ijaw heritage, and although my grandmother was a nurse/midwife, she was trained in the early 20th Century, at a time when some premature babies survived wrapped in layers of blankets. She was not averse to traditional medicine. Any Ijaw person will tell you that massage is the first line of therapy for any ailment in an Ijaw household. Ijaws will prescribe massage for a toothache even! I have a friend whose parents separated when he was 10 years old. His father was Ijaw. When I met him he was nearly 30 years old, and the only Ijaw word he could remember was the word for massage. That is how serious massage therapy is for Ijaws. Every ailment calls for a massage. And fertility massage is not new to Ijaws. So after satisfying myself that there was no magic to the FMT I was reading about and the FMT that Ijaw women have been practising for centuries, I got a recommendation from our regular “press-body” man in Lagos and off I went. Fortunately for me, I got my desired results and lasting relief.

The massage therapist who was recommended to me ran an operation that included bone-setting, which was done primarily by her sons under her supervision. In bone-setting certain plants are used for their opiod properties. What these plants are, I do not know and if I asked they probably would not be revealed to me. This is one of the challenges in the development of our traditional medicine – the secrecy. Methods and properties of potions are guarded secrets, passed down in families from generation to generation. With the younger generation seeking their fortunes in other professions, the older generation is dying away with their knowledge and skill. There have been efforts by different government agencies to document our traditional medicine practices. The Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA) is one of the institutions tasked with identifying, documenting, testing and promoting traditional herbal medicine. But the Agency is so poorly funded, I wonder how many years it will take them to make any reasonable impact. The National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research (NIPR) is another institution working to grow the Nigerian herbal medicine industry.

Another challenge impeding the growth of our natural medicine industry is perception and acceptance of traditional medicine. With the holy crowd, every local traditional therapy is suspect, brought forth from the bowels of the devil. The traditional therapist must have said some incantations as they cut and prepared the plants for the medicine. But some in that crowd will have their Ginseng capsules, practise Yoga and have the occasional acupuncture session. For some others, it is simply about research and the relative certainty of the efficacy of tested chemical drugs. But if the secrets are not revealed, they cannot be tested.

The secrecy can be explained by economics. Traditional medicine practitioners will guard their methods until they can be guaranteed some economic reward. Economic reward for knowledge is the consequence of intellectual property (IP) rights protection. The difficulty with traditional medicine is that it does fit comfortably under any umbrella of IP rights for protection. Patent law would be the closest refuge but these are not new inventions; the lack of innovation and novelty precludes the grant of patent rights.

There are discussions around the world as to how and where to situate traditional knowledge in order to protect the rights of people who hold the knowledge and allow them some economic gain. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are all involved in these discussions. Information must be shared so that practices can be tested and standardised. Information will not be shared until there is some economic guarantee for the knowledge holder.

It is my hope that all stakeholders will work together to develop a legal regime that protects and grows the industry. It is, after all, a multibillion dollar global industry with great potential earning power for Nigeria.

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