Traditional medicine worth billions

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By John Yeld

Cape Town - Some 72 percent of South Africa’s population of just under 52 million people use traditional medicines and 27 million of them spend between 4 percent and 8 percent of their annual income on traditional medicinal services, an audience at UCT’s Summer School has heard.

Phakamani Xaba, an SA National Biodiversity Institute conservation research horticulturist based at Kirstenbosch, said the traditional medicine market was worth an estimated R2.9 billion a year, or 5.6 percent of the annual health budget.

He also pointed out that there were an estimated 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa – making this the biggest sector of the country’s health-care industry – while at least 133 000 households depended on the collection of medicinal plants for their income. Most of the collecting was done by otherwise unemployed rural women.

Xaba, who established the Useful Plants Garden at Kirstenbosch, gave these figures during his lecture “Demystifying the Use of Muthi Plants” that was one of a five-part series last week to honour the centenary celebration of Kirstenbosch this year.

Using data from a Futureworks research paper, “Economics of the Traditional Medicine Trade in South Africa” by Myles Mander and others, Xaba pointed out that between 35 000 and 70 000 tons of plant material were consumed each year from the 3 000-odd species used in traditional medicine. Of these, some 700 species were traded in large quantities, and most (around 95 percent) were traded only in informal markets.

“But 86 percent of wild plant species harvested for traditional medicine will result in the plant dying,” he added.

Pointing out that South Africa’s population had soared from fewer than 10 million in 1910 to close to 52 million today, he said: “So we have quite a challenge. You can imagine how much pressure there is on the wild plants as the customs (of wild harvesting) haven’t changed.”

However, this was not a problem peculiar to South Africa – China, for example, had similar challenges.

Xaba explained that 25 percent of all prescribed medicines used worldwide contained plant material, and that scientists had done a significant amount of research on plants used in traditional medicine to test the efficacy of their chemical compounds.

They had already identified more than 3 000 alkaloids in 4 000 plants, as well as glycosides. Alkaloids can have a pronounced effect on the nervous system, producing both physiological and psychological reactions, while glycosides are small organic molecules containing sugar.

“There are many compounds that we as humans find useful and which are rich in valuable bioactivities – for example, as vitamins or a source of nitrogen,” he said. (Bioactivity is the effect of a chemical agent on a living organism.) - Cape Argus

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