Oct 5th 2006
From The Economistprint edition
A pharmacopoeia for AfricaIT IS easy to forget that the pharmaceutical industry has its roots in the ancient art of botanising. That was the name apothecaries gave to the activity of collecting plants that time and tradition had shown possessed useful medical properties. Even the first synthetic blockbuster drugs, Bayer's aspirin and heroin, were minor modifications of molecules extracted from, respectively, willow bark and poppy seed-pods.
Much of the world still relies on herbs for its medicines. Used correctly, they can be extremely effective. The twin problems of herbal medicine, though, are ignorance about what truly works and what does not, and quality control of a product that is not the result of standard production methods. To help overcome those deficiencies in a continent that is particularly dependent on herbal medicine, a group of researchers is assembling a pan-African pharmacopoeia—a database of plants with medicinal properties.
The Association for African Medicinal Plants Standards, a collaboration of medicinal-plant scientists from 14 countries, plans to launch the first edition of this database by December. It will contain detailed profiles of 23 plants, including devil's claw, which is used to treat rheumatism; red stinkwood, whose bark provides an ingredient for prostate-cancer drugs; and African ginger, which is good for relieving headaches. The association's members plan to add another 30 plants early next year.
Each profile will contain descriptions of the plant itself, of its medical properties, and of chemical tests that can be used to identify it. Not only will this information help local healthworkers, by winnowing what works from what does not, it may also increase international trade in African herbal medicines.
According to the World Health Organisation, the global market for medicinal plants exceeds $60 billion a year. Most of this, though, is in plants from Asia. Increasing Africa's slice would be a useful boost to the continent's international trade. At the moment, African medicinal plants are often ignored because foreign buyers have no guarantee of the quality of the materials they are purchasing. The hope is that by telling buyers which herbs are valuable for what, which characteristics to seek when making a purchase, and which chemical tests identify active ingredients, the new pharmacopoeia will provide that boost. The pharmacopoeia, in other words, would create a set of standards that all parties could work towards.
Pharmacopoeias have been used to control the quality of medicines for centuries. England's first one appeared in 1618. Today, though, most of them focus on factory-made drugs. It seems unlikely that the association's efforts will launch another Bayer. But if they make African medicine more effective and boost trade to boot, that will be no mean achievement.