Deemed traditional for lack of data support and short of defined dosages, herbal medicine has been relatively shunned in urban settings though all partake to varying degrees. The advent of the pandemic in 2020 has put traditional and herbal remedies to the fore. Supported by policy and governmental recognition, the field is slowly growing as a business and alternative health care, writes EBR’s Trualem Asmare.
A few months after the Covid pandemic hit Ethiopia, Lia Tadesse, Minister of Health, went on national TV to inform the nation on promising developments of a herbal medicine to tackle the virus. Giving a press conference alongside Hakim Abebech Shiferaw, a famous herbal medicine Expert, Lia went as far saying the remedy was on the verge of being recognized by her ministry.
The announcement was received with both delight and concern for Ethiopians. Global health leaders such as Senait Fisseha, Advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) director, were quick to condemn the announcement while average Ethiopians were having their moment of pride.
Even though herbal medicine is not openly supported or opposed, the practice is slowly setting a foothold as an organized business.
Solomon Adamu, self-acclaimed Traditional Healer, got his expertise while in Gojam and Gonder in the State of Amhara. In an attempt to support his knowledge with evidence-based learning, he also attended Medco Bio-medical College and graduated as a health officer.
Solomon now owns St. Michael Traditional Clinic in Bole District after founding it in 1997 with an investment capital of ETB250,000 and five employees. Now with a capital of ETB800,000, the clinic provides treatment to anyone under 60 years of age. All types of men and women go to his clinic looking to be treated for various illnesses.
“We focus on diseases like cancer, tuberculosis, and wrinkles,” Solomon told EBR. “Most of our treatments are provided in the form of lubricants.” About 30 patients visit the clinic on a daily basis.
“Five or six years ago, our society did not have a good understanding of traditional medicine. It was despised as one that causes more harm than good,” Solomon told EBR. “Now, more people seem to understand the benefits of it, evidenced in the number of visitors we get every day.”
Solomon also has written a book entitled Tibebin Bemankia, which translates into Wisdom with a Spoon. Among other things, the book aims to teach people how to self-treat themselves at home to remedy certain diseases and avoid going to hospitals for easy health challenges. Solomon also hopes people who read his book will question the kind of treatment they get at hospitals.
“Traditional medicine, well supported by evidence-based research, can play a significant role in healing people, just like in other countries,” Solomon argues. “Traditional and modern medicine must go hand-in-hand and we must stop despising the former.”
Most people are wary of the remedies. One such person is Lulit Melaku, a 28-year-old mother of two, who lives in the same district as Solomon’s clinic. Most of the time, Lulit would take her children to the hospital or clinic whenever they get sick. However, one day, one of the kids couldn’t get better even after a hospital visit. The prescribed drugs just wouldn’t work. It was then that her father recommended a traditional clinic. She did just that and her boy returned to his health.
“I paid only ETB600,” She told EBR. “Now, I wouldn’t mind visiting traditional clinics for my children when they get sick. I have also become generally cautious of just flying off to hospitals before trying remedies at home.”
Gizaw Bekele is Owner of Green Care Herbal Clinic. He studied herbal medicine for 13 years and was first licensed to operate in Canada. He provides treatments in drinkable liquid form which has taken him six years to prove it is without side effects. After coming to Ethiopia in 2010, he set up his business with an initial investment of ETB60,000. He now has four employees and 20 suppliers or plant and other products of nature.
The products he uses include carrot, orange, and coffee oils as well as onion, rosemary, argon, aloe vera, and moringa among others. He then prepares his medications without any added chemicals. The most expensive treatment at Gizaw’s clinic is ETB4,000, while the least is ETB500. He treats ailments of hair, face, migraine, diabetes, cancer, and others. He feels society’s response to his services is rather positive and even has customers from Canada, the USA, and Arab countries.
“It is full of challenges,” Gizaw reflects. “Many people come to me after losing hope following a series of other treatments.”
Gizaw and his colleagues are now working to grow the capital to ETB40 million with plans of opening a facility featuring both traditional and modern treatment in Bahir Dar, for which the design is finalized.
“If professionals in both lines of business can collaborate, the landscape of medical treatment will greatly change,” Gizaw argues. “From saving hard earned foreign currency to improving the treatment itself, we can record significant results through collaboration.”
The sentiment seems to be well shared by leaders of public health institutions. Tegbar Yigzaw, former President of the Ethiopian Public Health Association (EPHA), sees the potential in traditional medicine as it is indigenous knowledge used for centuries to treat health challenges. For Tegbar, the collaboration between science and traditional medicine practice is an important element that is still missing.
“The practice of traditional medicine has been recognized at the policy level in Ethiopia. Yet, it is not well supported by science,’’ he argues. “Our training should involve both sides of the health treatment.”
Despite the growing spread in the services of conventional medicine, Ethiopians still heavily rely on the traditional and herbal. Modern health services are still highly limited to urban areas of the nation and fail to keep up with the staggering population. Traditional medical practitioners mostly implement herbs, spiritual healing, bone-setting, and minor surgical procedures to treat disease. Ethiopian traditional medicine is vastly complex, diverse, and varies greatly among ethnic groups. Traditional remedies rely on an explanation of disease that draws on both the mystical and natural causes of an illness and employ a holistic approach to treatment, according to a 1991 study by Bishaw M. published on the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
As traditional medicine is culturally entrenched, accessible, and affordable, up to 80Pct of the Ethiopian population relies on it as a primary source of health care, according a 2006 study by K.D. Kassaye and colleagues at Jimma University. The influence of traditional medicine is also seen in Ethiopian migrant populations with the presence of practitioners and herbal remedies.
Globally, China is a nation that has been praised for its herbal medicine treatment environment. Ancient in its beginnings, Chinese herbal medicine has a focus on potions. It is believed that its theoretical foundation came sometime between the second century BCE and second century CE, but the focus was more on acupuncture than on herbs. However, just like in Ethiopia, the remedies mostly lack theoretical basis.
The advent of Covid-19 has put extra focus on the medicine industry. As a pandemic is defined by absence of remedies, the majority of Ethiopians turned to herbs and other plants to augment their immune system. With that momentum, traditional medicine is now on a trajectory of featuring more and more in the medicine industry.
EBR 10th Year • Feb 2022 • No. 104