The Director General of the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), Dr. Samuel Etatuvie in this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, explains steps his organization has taken towards finding a local cure for COVID-19 and also efforts being put in place to combat malaria fever among other issues.
Some herbal medicine advocates believe that the combination of garlic, ginger and some herbs can cure Coronavirus. How true is this belief?
Over the years, scientists have identified ginger, garlic and neem, among other herbs, as having antiviral and antioxidant properties. They can also assist in taking care of cough and feverish feelings associated with these infections.
Therefore, from a scientific point of view, definitely ginger, garlic and many other medicinal plants have the capacity to manage and take care of the associated symptoms of most viral infections, including, influenza and HIV/AIDS. One major thing is that most viral infections attack the immune system, of which these plants have the properties that could boost the immune system.
I think it is not really far from the truth to say that you can use extracts of ginger, garlic and many other medicinal plants to take care of the associated symptoms of viral infections, including COVID-19. If you look carefully, you will find out that COVID-19 symptoms are almost similar to other viral infections – cough, difficulty in breathing, difficulty in smelling and pains.
What level of research has NNMDA done to ensure that we have a local cure for COVID-19?
Like I said, you can manage the associated symptoms of COVID-19. The difficulty with viral infections is that even though you develop a product today to take out the ravaging disease, after a while, you will find out that such disease may mutate and you will begin to look for another product to take care of the mutation.
If you remember, COVID-19 is a novel disease and as scientists, we need to be patient to find out its characteristics. This is why I will not say we are looking for something to cure COVID-19.
As a research agency, we immediately thought of what we could do to support the government. At a point, it was difficult to get hand sanitiser in most countries. Therefore, what we immediately did in February this year was to develop hand sanitiser, using medicinal plants around.
We exhibited it at the last Science and Technology Expo held between March 16 and 20.
We are at the point of getting NAFDAC listing for it. There was an initial delay because of the six-week-stay-at-home order. Even accessing printing and packaging materials became difficult at a time.
Between now and the middle of June, we should have concluded all NAFDAC requirements, and sent it to the agency for listing. We would have given the country, for the first time, a 100 per cent herbal hand sanitiser, and also save her the hard earned foreign currency spent on importing hand sanitisers.
The hand sanitiser has 100 per cent local content and it is as effective as the imported ones. As at when we produced it, our thought was that if it becomes difficult to get raw materials for imported hand sanitiser, we would turn our medicinal plants, which have been shown to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties into local hand sanitiser. The advantages of such initiative are many, as the raw materials are locally sourced and are easily available.
One of our mandates is to promote traditional medicine and to sensitise members of the public on the rational use of traditional medicine. One of the steps we took in respect of COVID-19 is to create public awareness during the lockdown. In the social media campaign, we advised Nigerians that, in addiction to obeying all the guidelines outlined by the NCDC, they should practice aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy is one of the methods used in the past to take care of influenza, among others. In aromatherapy practice, the patients place various herbal plants inside a big pot, boil the herbs with water, cover themselves with cloths and inhale the steam coming out from the pots. This gives relief to the patient and builds their immune system. One of the tactics of viral infections is to attack the immune system. Some people who got our message on aromatherapy called to commend our efforts.
We have been working in the area of product development. We have been able to come out with a tea form of herbal remedy for the management of blood sugar in the system for people battling with diabetics. We found out that those with underlying ailment like diabetes are more at risk of COVID-19. The tea has been listed by NAFDAC. We also have a tea that can be used by those who suffer from malaria. The product has the capacity to reduce the level of malaria parasite in the blood, reduce the fever and improve the appetite of the patient. We have got NAFDAC listing for the tea too.
We also have a mosquito repellant product, but there are a few tests remainito NAFDAC for listing.
Another malaria-focused product is our indoor spray, which performs the dual function of killing mosquitoes and other household insects, as well as serves as air freshener. The advantage of this herbal product is that you can stay indoors while it is being applied. This is unlike what is obtainable with other chemicalised ones. We are also working on developing larvasical spray that can kill mosquito larvae within the environment.
It appears the agency is focusing more attention on malaria fever?
Statistics have shown that malaria causes more deaths than COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS. With abundant medicinal plants in the country, if we are able to do a lot in this direction, we would have improved the health of Nigerians and the nation’s economy. This is because we would have healthier people who would be economically active.
One other product that we have been successful with is a product to manage breast cancer. The development of the product has gone far and the potential is very high. We do not want to blow our horns unnecessarily until we finish all our scientific analyses. After that, we will go for NAFDAC listing. After the listing, other steps like clinical trial will now come in. If we are able to pass all the stages of the clinical trials, it means we can throw it open to the world.
We also have a product to treat erectile dysfunction. At times, when we go for exhibition, we find it difficult to meet the demand for it. In addition, we have a cream for women that are experiencing vaginal discharge.
We have published nine books on medicinal plants of Nigeria because we are fully aware that documentation is key if we really want to promote local production of our traditional medicine.
Another critical job that we are doing is the training of traditional medicine practitioners, which has remained the flagship duty of the agency since its formative years. We encourage the practitioners to do documentation because we have noticed that old practitioners are dying with their knowledge. So, we are encouraging the younger ones to documen encouraging the younger ones to document their therapy, just as we train them on how to preserve their intellectual property rights.
We have also reached out to people who sell agbo (herbal concoctions) around the country to see how they can improve the packaging of the products they hawk. Even if whatever they are hawking does not cure, it should not also cause harm because it will take time for us to convince everybody not take agbo.