For a payment of R150 Albertina Shakoane will provide five litres of her mauve-coloured tea she claims will cure AIDS. She makes the infusion from a small leafy plant, which her father pointed out to her when she was growing up in Cullinan, describing it as a medicinal Jack of all trades.
Decades later, Shakoane, a registered nurse, was approached for help by a sick man with AIDS and remembered the conversation with her father. She prayed that the tea she brewed from the purple-flowered plant would not harm her patient.
More than two years later, he is still drinking her preparation twice a day. Shakoane says she has 20 customers, and as news spreads in her community, demand is growing. Shakoane's treatments are illegal.
Our law is very specific, and anything (sold) as a medical product must be registered with the Medicines Control Council, says the registrar for medicines, Precious
The World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of people living in Africa use traditional medicines. At present 70% of South Africans consult the more than 200000 traditional healers in the country.
The African traditional medicines market is unregulated, says Matsoso, leaving consumers vulnerable to unsubstantiated claims and potentially lethal remedies.
There are countless concoctions on the market that have absolutely no therapeutic benefit. Diluted Jeyes Fluid, industrial solvents and battery acid are just some of the dubious ingredients commonly found in fake traditional medicines.
The ever-increasing numbers of people infected with HIV, few of whom have access to antiretroviral medicines, are contributing to the demand for traditional medicines.
Traditional remedies, which have evolved amongst indigenous communities in SA over thousands of years of careful use and observation, hold hope of new treatments and perhaps even cures for diseases.
The problem is sifting through the claims, and deciding which remedies to subject to scientific scrutiny with the limited resources available to conduct clinical trials, says Gilbert Matsabisa, head of the Medical Research Council's Indigenous Knowledge Systems health unit.
An initiative launched at the weekend by the health department may help efforts to find the effective traditional remedies.
The National Reference Centre for African Traditional Medicines is a virtual institution that will be jointly managed by the Medical Research Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
It plans to establish a network of experts and facilities, and a database that captures information on traditional remedies and encourages people who bring cures to track the progress of research into their products.
We expect samples to come in from a wide range of sources, from plants that are widely used to those that are not. We will prioritise (claims) based on their usage and national priorities, says Vinesh Maharaj, business manager
for bio-prospecting at the CSIR's Biochemtek division.
The Medical Research Council is acting as a clearing house for claims of immuno-modulators, says
Matsabisa advocates sharing the financial benefits of the cures with a 50:50 split between the research institution and the community that has traditionally used the remedy.
A national trust fund will be established for the community portion, with funds earmarked for other activities including developing skills in the traditional medicines industry.
(Source: Business Day, 3 September 2003)