The European ethnocentrism and, by extension, all the so-called western culture tends to undervalue the rest of cultures. If there is a field of knowledge where this attitude manifests itself clearly, it is undoubtedly in the field of medicine.
Our scientific culture, built on the prosperity brought to Europe by the colonial exploitation of Africa and America, indisputably provides invaluable resources that can and must be used in the human fight against disease.
But neither are the only resources available nor are only those that adapt to our criteria acceptable. In Africa, although mostly hidden behind the aftermath of colonialism, there is medical knowledge that has been treasured over a much longer history than in Europe and which can contribute not only and primarily to the well-being of Africans but also to that of humanity as a whole.
The concept of traditional medicine and its relationship with scientific medicine. Knowledge and practices that are useful for preserving and improving health, which arise from the culture of a given society, can be considered traditional medicine.
In Africa, empirical knowledge of the healing properties of plants forms the basis of traditional therapeutics. It is also, to a large extent, the basis of our so-called Western or scientific medicine.
No one wrote her name but it was a “herbera” woman who, at the end of the 18th century, revealed to scientific medicine the usefulness of digital medicine to combat dropsy; today, the active principles of this plant (Digitalis sp.) form the basis of the “scientific” medicines most commonly used to combat dropsy and the heart failure that causes it.
Also the African popular culture has nourished our pharmacopoeia: some of the most used antihypertensives arose from extracts of khella (Amni visnaga), a plant traditionally used in North Africa; from the Madagascar vinca (Catharanthus roseus) we obtain potent antitumorals;
from the African plum (Pygeum africanum) we elaborate the main medicines to combat benign prostatic hyperplasia based on the traditional use by some ethnic groups of central and southern Africa to treat this ailment; from the African plum (Pygeum africanum) we elaborate the main medicines to combat benign prostatic hyperplasia based on the traditional use by some ethnic groups of central and southern Africa to treat this ailment.
There are many examples which, like those mentioned above, show that Africa and its culture can also bring substantial knowledge to “our medicine”.
Inspiration or spoliation. This transfer of knowledge and this interrelation of cultures has not always followed the paths of respect. Currently, there are dozens of cases of possible abusive appropriation, through patents, of traditional African medical knowledge.
Occasionally, the intellectual and economic plundering perpetrated has been unmasked and stopped, as recently happened with the patents of Schwabe Pharmaceuticals on the root extracts of the South African plants Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme marketed under the name Umckaloabo for respiratory tract infections and AIDS.
After an arduous lawsuit the patents have been revoked and the affected Zulu communities, legitimate owners of the knowledge about the curative use of these plants, have the possibility of sharing the benefits derived from their commercialization.
Health in Africa and access to medicines. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 80% of the African population has no access to medicine other than traditional medicine.
Neither the pharmaceutical companies see it profitable to invest in drugs for African diseases (malaria, trypanosomiasis, kala-azar, various parasitosis, etc.) nor the post-colonial mirage of the infallibility of Western medicine, present in the minds of many Africans, allows the potential of traditional medicine to be exploited.
Western medicine is expensive and difficult to access and traditional medicine is discredited and, in general, neglected by governments; this is the context that prevents a large part of the African population from adequately solving their health problems.
Traditional medicine as a valid resource for health in Africa and the world. Harnessing the therapeutic resources of their own tradition and culture can enable African countries to move towards health sovereignty by breaking the dependence on the “generous” aid – sometimes under patent – of Western medicine.
Since 1978, the WHO has recognised the importance of the world’s various traditional medicines and, in this sense, some African governments – few, certainly – have encouraged the research, validation and marketing of traditionally used medicines which, following their “normalisation”, are known as “improved traditional medicines”.
In this way, around 30 medicines based on extracts from traditional plants have been manufactured and marketed in countries such as Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso or Senegal.
With them, ailments such as malaria, gastroenteritis, various infections and so on can be combated effectively and affordably. Even one of them, Niprisan, developed in Nigeria as a remedy for sickle cell disease has been approved by the FDA for use in the United States.