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Malaria: TCM revisited

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By Talibeh Hydara

I have not been well. I have malaria, which I cannot seem to escape. For the past three years, I did everything to escape it; mosquito nets, creams, repellents, socks at night. I even brought a nice little mosquito trap from China. Quite efficient. But somehow I contract malaria every year, usually between July and August. Last year’s was a bit more serious because I was even hallucinating. We call it chronic malaria. This time, however, I felt it didn’t even pick up and it is already going down. My colleague at work said the mosquitoes drank my blood and tasted Chinese food in it that’s why I wasn’t infected severely. She’s probably right because I don’t only have the food in my system but TCM too.

It started on Tuesday. I closed from work and I was in a very jovial mood. I walked into a mini-market and bought my favorite body lotion. I was looking forward to the next day. In the middle of the night, around 3AM to be exact, I woke up to go to the bathroom. My feet touched the ground and, instantly, I couldn’t move. I stood and remained standing for a minute. I was pressed so I had to find a way to go to the bathroom. I did. I staggered back but couldn’t hitch up the bed net. I couldn’t believe how weak my joints were. It’s like I was hit by a truck. I gave up. I managed to spread two prayer mats and spent the rest of the night on the floor. For the next three hours, I soaked in sweat and shivered. I couldn’t wait for the sunrise. A gift from Xi’an was all I needed. I picked the little thermometer and checked my temperature. It’s 36. Not bad, I said. However, few hours later, the fever returned. I checked the temperature again. It’s 39.1. That’s bad, I said. I was getting a bit worried. I drank water. Lots of water. I checked again. It’s Hi. That’s worse, I said. I had to take a quick lukewarm bath. I have been in a tug-of-war with malaria and my little thermometer has since switched to Fahrenheit, displaying digits I can neither read nor interpret.

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The last time I had malaria, I used some herbs. This time, no one even suggested it to me. It breaks my heart seeing the state of our traditional medicine. I believe malaria is building resistance to these conventional medicines. One of the most effective anti malaria drugs in The Gambia is coartem and it is the most popular now, which I bought. My issue with coartem is its smell. I have never seen any drug that stinks that bad, so bad that it can wake a dead person. We need to explore traditional medicine.

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To his credit, our former president Yahya Jammeh revived and gave prominence to usage of traditional medicine in The Gambia. He started well until he got too excited. He said he could cure infertility in women. We clapped. He said he could cure HIV/AIDS. We clapped. He said he could cure asthma. We clapped. And then  he said he could cure it within five minutes. But, all of sudden, the same herbs that he used to cure people, were used to identify witches and that’s where he lost the plot.

On a serious note, The Gambia needs proper legislation on traditional medicine. Once we have the required legal framework, then we can effectively standardise and incorporate it into conventional treatment. With that, like it is in China, we can start work from the basics by having a traditional medicine unit in major health centers and accredited courses in medical institutions.

China has remarkably and seamlessly blended TCM with modern medicine, investing resources in both areas and reaping the rewards. That’s why, for example, the Chinese used Artemisia (qinghao) plants to treat malaria and fever for more than two thousand years and then, in a 20th century breakthrough, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou discovered Artemisinin (qinghaosu), the anti-malarial drug that saved millions of lives including Africans. That drug was derived from a plant, sweet wormwood, and Tu Youyou went on to win the Nobel Prize. If the Chinese had said qinghao is bitter and abandoned the plant like we’re abandoning neem tree, imagine the scenario! Like I said in an article on my visit to Dongzhimen Hospital, China on good wisdom explored and promoted traditional medicine and, with that single decision, the country has stolen a march on everyone else. This teaches the rest of us, including The Gambia, that even though conventional medicine is almost indispensable in our lives, we have to embrace and cherish alternative medicine.

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Our Ghanaian friend Professor Nyarkotey has been relentless advocating for the recognition and acceptance of traditional medicine in The Gambia. It’s a noble cause and it would require collective effort. This country is blessed with different tree species and plants most of which are medicinal but we haven’t really tapped into it. There’s no better time to focus on alternative treatments than now. New diseases are emerging and old ones re-emerging, with resistance to conventional medicine. I don’t know if anyone notices how fibroid and endometriosis are on the rise in The Gambia. The thought that it’s incurable; that you have to undergo surgery to remove it and still somehow have it; that it may have an impact on your ability to get pregnant have huge psychological effects on our women. I have seen firsthand how it breaks women. I do not believe there’s any disease that’s incurable. We just haven’t found a cure yet and, most of the time, the cure is in the herbs, without paying attention to Jammeh’s theatrics of course. A lot of these young women with fibroid have actually resorted to drinking a particular herbal tea which, I am told, could be found in China. The operative word is HERBAL.

I am still sick but I want to share these words with you. I am no expert in either conventional or traditional medicine but I have been sick a lot in the past three decades. I know which drugs worked; from chloroquine to coartem. Malaria is still killing people here, especially pregnant women and children. If the modern ways are no longer working, we owe it to ourselves to try alternative solutions. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we abandon conventional means. I’d be stupid to even remotely suggest that because my head would be on a spike next morning. What I am suggesting, despite my limited knowledge, is an investment of both human and financial resources into traditional medicine. So that in the long run, with proper strategies and regulation, traditional medicine can be a huge complement to the more trusted conventional wisdom and the population can benefit from both without having to abandon either.

Truth is, the west would always encourage us to follow their path to conventional treatment. We would be offered opportunities to seek knowledge expecting us to abandon our traditional methods and we will always gleefully celebrate their benevolence. But there’s sometimes malevolence beneath the benevolence. It’s just subliminal. I am all in for seeking medical knowledge, especially that which revolves around medicinal plants littered across the continent but only grazed by animals. For a continent that’s rising, we must rise with our beliefs and traditions because we are a whole package. For thousands of years, well before our civilisations were invaded, Africans relied on nature to cure the incurable. There’s no reason we cannot do that again because nature hasn’t changed. Let me go back to eating my porridge before ruffling some feathers.

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