Two Sides of Same Coin

While some Nigerians associate herbal concoctions  as health hazards, others regard them as life savers

|  By Chinwe Okafor  |  Oct. 28, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

ADEBISI Ibrahim, a local herb (agbo) seller, does her daily business at Sunmonu Street in Ogba, a suburb of Ikeja, usually a beehive of commercial activities. She has all manner of clients who patronise her either through seeking one medical advice or another while many others also come to buy her herbal drugs. It is not surprising therefore to see men, women and even youths clutching different sizes and shapes of bottles containing local herbs as they move in and out of her shop.

Interestingly, many of her clients believe her local drugs cater for all sicknesses, ranging from common cold to the most complex of diseases. Many of her clients see her not just as a physician and dispenser but also as a miracle worker. “Each mixture expires at the end of seven days and one cup should be taken daily for any ailment and any mixture which stays for more than seven days is no longer potent. It is used to clear the body of mende-mende (toxicants). The type you take depends on what you want, for instance, Paraga or Sepe is good for manpower, while agbo jedi is for pile, and Opa eyin is for waist pain,” she said.

Adefunke Olubayo, a housewife, who patronises Ibrahim daily, said she takes Agbo because she believes it works faster than the conventional medicines. She said she prefers the local herbs because it’s a quick action drug. “My preference of Agbo over orthodox drugs is that it is more effective, result-oriented and cheaper. I don’t think its health implications are as severe as people make it seem. It works because they are the same roots our fore-fathers used and they lived longer than us.”

Ibrahim is just one out of the many local herbal manufacturers who, unsuspecting members of the public patronise while seeking medical assistance. From Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers, Anambra, Kano to Kaduna and few other states, there has been a proliferation of local herbal business. The proliferation of this herbal concoction has been of great concern to stake-holders in the health sector and like many uncontrolled enterprises, the fear of abuse is now in the minds of orthodox medics as well as Nigerians who delight in taking these local herbs.

A typical herbal market
A typical herbal market

Some Nigerians delve into the act of herbal medicine without any form of education or training. They do it without considering the dangers it poses to its consumers. Some herbal drug sellers said they go into the trade in order to flee from unemployment and also put food on their tables. Realnews findings have revealed that the use of Agbo as a cure for various illnesses was common among the Yorubas who believe that the concoction is highly medicinal and that it cures almost every illness ranging from headache, stomach ache, back ache, diabetes, malaria, cold, fever and infertility among others.

Medical experts have also cautioned that some Agbo preparations are dangerous to the health because some people who consume the concoctions often run into health complications which land them on hospital beds. The medical experts argue that most herbal preparations don’t undergo any form of laboratory test and are not prepared and administered by either a pharmacist or a microbiologist who, by their profession, are trained to produce drugs both solid and liquid. Bernard Nzerem, a medical expert with Chapel Specialist Hospital in Owerri, said that most people who consume herbal mixtures lack the comprehensive knowledge of their contents, toxicities, efficacy, accurate presumption or even illnesses they are supposed to cure. According to him, only misinformed people use agbo because they think it is better than standard drugs prescribed in standard hospitals or health care centres.

“Although many had argued that many plants used in preparing this agbo contains active substances and on many occasions had been used in producing conventional medicines but the fact remains that the herbal medicine market is highly unregulated at the moment. People should go for herbal drugs that had undergone several laboratory tests and are administered by the appropriate agency,” he said. A medical student who pleaded anonymity told Realnews that he knows of a man who took several shots of agbo which he believed would cure him of his ailment because he was told by the seller that the mixture contains quinine, antibiotics and anti-malaria supplements.

But after one week of self medication with the mixture, he became critically ill. At the hospital where he was taken to, the doctor diagnosed him of severe heart complication caused by an unknown liquid concoction which many believed was the agbo he had been taking. Little wonder many medics have raised the alarm over the indiscriminate sale and use of herbal concoctions, especially aphrodisiacs in the country. They have linked the consumption of these substances to increasing reported cases of kidney and liver failures among the citizens. Apart from that, they have cautioned that the unregulated sale and production of herbal medicines may result in drug addiction and ultimately increase the population of Nigerians with kidney and liver problems.

Femi Faduyile, chief medical director, Royal Cross Medical Centre, Lagos, has advised that the use of unverified local drugs and the activities of their operators and marketers needed check. He said that health care professionals need to discourage individuals from taking herbal concoctions because they contain toxic and harmful chemicals that could corrode the liver. “Many of these herbal medicines are taken raw like concoctions and this is dangerous. Raw herbs may contain very toxic chemicals and that can only be removed pharmaceutically. These raw mixtures contain chemicals that have not been analysed.

“When you take something that has not been analysed to know whether it is useful or not, then you are exposed to danger. Some herbal preparations are not even useful when you analyse them. They are as good as drinking water while some are as potent as poison. When you keep drinking herbs that are not good, the liver and kidney keep working to eradicate them. The day they get tired of doing the dirty job too often, they will pack up.” Yinka Abdulsalami, Lagos State chairman, Association of Community Pharmacists, said the blame for herbal abuse and proliferation was due to poor implementation of government policies.

He said that herbal medicine in the country would continue to flourish in so far as its practitioners violated guidelines on safe medical practices. According to him, these unorthodox medicine operators, claim to cure for diseases without any scientific proof. He noted that in the medical world, it is ethically wrong for any doctor or pharmacist to say he can cure diabetes or hypertension or ulcer or any disease. “We know that cure is subject to interpretation and making such claims makes patients gullible and prone to deceit. But in herbal practice, anybody who is looking for a client can claim to cure hypertension, HIV/AIDs or any disease in vogue.

[L-R] Ernest Okafor, MD, Neimeth Pharmaceuticals, Anthony Akhimien, former president, Pharmacists Society of Nigeria, PSN, Azubuike Okor, immediate past president, PSN and Abdulsalami
[L-R] Ernest Okafor, MD, Neimeth Pharmaceuticals, Anthony Akhimien, former president, Pharmacists Society of Nigeria, PSN, Azubuike Okor, immediate past president, PSN and Abdulsalami

“Gone are those days when herbs were prepared to save lives and not for money or commercial purposes. Then herbal practitioners were much more sincere. Now, Nigerians see herbal medicine as a moneymaking venture. We are not saying that they are all bad, but with regulation and following scientific procedures, we can separate the chaff from the grain,” he said. Abdulsalami added that abuse of herbal medicines was more rampant in rural areas compared to urban areas due to lack of health care facilities and professionals. He added that if the government was serious about the health of Nigerians, it must provide health care facilities for its citizens, no matter where they live. He said that it must also regulate herbal practice in order to bring it up.

Joke Adebayo, a traditional herbs seller, said that the use of herbs to solve health problems was not new to the Nigerian society. “We have all these herbs around us and the usage is derived from our own culture. We have been using a combination of these herbs as agbo to treat many ailments before the white man came. So, there is really nothing new in using herbs, only that now, we have all sorts of people selling all sorts of things as agbo, all in the name of making money.” According to her, most of the hawkers selling agbo at the bus stops and parks are actually selling slow poison because most of them do not know the history, use or the origin of the herbs they sell, especially those people that sell it with mixtures of alcoholic spirits such as ogogoro (local dry gin).

“They get some herbs, mix them with ogogoro and sell to people and when you take it, you’ll feel you are okay when actually, what they are taking is pure alcoholic spirit, which is harmful to the body. These Agbo hawkers are the quacks that have given a bad name to our trade. Traditional herb sellers or trado medicals do not sell mixture-like concoctions. We do researches and have names for different herbs and each herbal plant has its specific uses. The knowledge of herbs is ancient passed down from generation to generation and what we do when people come to us is to prescribe herbs, depending on what ailment your want to treat, and you go home and do the mixture yourself in a measured quantity that we have prescribed, mostly with water and not with ogogoro. We have a registered association and we have guidelines for the operations of our members,” she said.

But not everybody likes to take the local herbs hawked on the streets. Chike Nduka, a trader at Idumota, faulted the mode of production of most herbal medicine products because they do not comply with good manufacturing practice. “I don’t like taking the herbal concoctions because of the poor sanitary conditions in which they are prepared. “Many of them obtain their water from the wells, streams or rivers, which would have been contaminated with urine or faeces, but with a belief that once the herbal products are boiled, all the bacteria will die. The tools used for production are washed without any kind of disinfectants because they are too complex for sterilisation. Today, we see sediments at the bottom of the so-called pure water we buy from hawkers who, in most cases, tapped the public water into their kitchen to refill the plastic water bottles sourced from different places,” he said.

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