February 2019

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Bush medicine, herbal remedies, traditional healing modalities– however you refer to it, herbalism is a practice that has maintained its popularity, and some of its mysticism, over time.

Globally the use of traditional medicine is burgeoning, particularly in developed countries. Statistics for developing nations indicate that over 80% of the population rely on herbs and plants for health maintenance and therapeutic disease management.

At home, a recent Merritt-Charles survey revealed an exposed lifetime prevalence of usage of 86% among surgical outpatients. A subsequent survey conducted by UWI Pharmacology Professor and Coordinator of the Pharmacology Unit of the Faculty of Medical Sciences Dr Yuri Clement revealed a 40% prevalence of use among public health sector physicians.

But although science is circling back to seek out the potential and determine the true effectiveness of these less conventional remedies within a modern world, is there sufficient information to ensure our safety in the practice of herbalism?

Professor Clement is leading research locally to determine just that.“In the past a lot of the drugs came from plants and we have to recognise that. The issue we have today is that people are using drugs together with herbs and there could be (negative) interaction between those two,” asserted the Professor.

On November 22 2018, UWI’s StAugustine Campus hosted Professor Clement’s Professorial Inaugural Lecture on the topic “Preserving Our Herbal Medicine Tradition”. The lecture, held at the Teaching and Learning Complex, attracted members of the medical community, practitioners of traditional medicine, students, staff and members of the public.

Healing Tradition

It is postulated that human beings have used plants and herbs for medicinal purposes since the dawn of our existence.

In fact, plants were the only medicines used before 500 BC.Shortly thereafter the Greek physician Hippocrates – considered the father of Western medicine – married traditionalremedies with a more practical approach, studying and utilising more than200 medicinal herbs in his treatments. But even as medical science advanced, traditions remained.

Speaking about the current environment, Professor Clement stated that although laboratory research and animal testing are beingexecuted worldwideto determine the properties and efficacy of commonly used herbs, significant research had yet to be conducted on humans to determine the risk-benefit associated with using these herbs, either singularly or in combination with other herbs or conventional drugs.

265 herbal users were interviewed as part of the Professor’s survey from a geographically diverse group of health centres and villages cross-country to ascertain the perceived efficacy of herb-based medicines compared to theirWestern counterparts. The respondents cited over 100 herbs they used for the promotion of health and wellness and the management of specific health concerns.

By far garlic proved to be most popular among users (48.3%). Its primary uses were for general well being, cold, cough, fever, cleansing the blood, flatulence and hypertension.

"A lot of people used garlic for high blood pressure, and they used it together with their (prescription) medication. A lot of them said it worked but a small amount of them said their pressure went (down) too low," stated the Professor.

He argued that this was why human testing is a necessity – because drugs affect people differently. Testing is needed to determine their safety, efficacy, how they work, the approach to standardisation, optimum dosages and possible side effects – as is required for conventional medicine – so as to allow for informed administration he said.

However, funding for this type of research could run into the millions and even though some assistance is offered from UWI in the form of equipment and grants, it is not enough.

"I would want to think that Government, somebody, has to see the importance of this kind of work and start supporting it," he said.

When it comes to funding, one of the most researched herbs is of course cannabis. At a recent political meeting, Prime Minister Keith Rowley advised that T&T would be reviewing its marijuana legislation next year with a view to decriminalising its use.

“In terms of the legalisation, I think there is a place for it but it should be managed because marijuana has side effects,” said the Professor. He said that the drug had to be decriminalised first to ensure safe procurement and, most importantly, a significant educational drive is needed so that the public understands that there are risks associated with the benefits.

Lisa Luana Owen is a freelance writer, event coordinator, PR strategist, and traditional and new media marketing consultant.