Recently in Guinea, it was reported that a woman who had been passing herself off as a traditional healer and herbalist succeeded in selling some concoctions to more than 700 women to cure them of infertility. She tricked them that the concoction would make them pregnant but it failed.
She capitalised on their desperation to become mothers and charged them huge sums of money.
When the concoction was administered over a period, the bellies of the women got swollen, making them think they were pregnant. Some looked that way for more than a year. The woman was jailed five years for her conduct. In addition, she was ordered by the court to pay 165,000 dollars as compensation. The women were hoping for a harsher sentence because according to a police doctor who had examined them, they risked having long-term complications.
The story reminded me of a six-year-old girl and her mother I met at the Eye Clinic of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. One of the little girl’s eyes was virtually coming out of its socket. Out of curiosity, I asked the mother, who looked so distraught, what happened. Her story was pathetic. Her daughter had been complaining that, that eye was itchy. To relieve the itch, she bought herbs from a man who had been hawking herbs in her neighbourhood, and administered it to that eye. The result was what had brought them to the eye clinic. She never saw that hawker again.
Her story also reminded me of a cream I bought some years ago on a Tema-bound bus from the Neoplan Station. The man had claimed the cream could cure any skin rash. I applied it on my body and behold, a series of blisters which later became sore at wherever I applied it. To date, the scars remain. I did not have the luxury to seek any redress, and so the fraudster went scot-free.
In our country today, many people seem to be so bent on making money by any means that there is no care whether people will die or be maimed in the process. And one of the easy avenues seems to be passing any kind of concoction as herbal medicine for sale.
There seems to be a ready market for herbal preparations, both local and foreign ones, especially for slimming, curing baldness or hair growth, aphrodisiacs and for penis enlargement. And there is this perception that once it comes from China, then it must definitely be potent!
One other attraction to herbal medication is the fact that they are cheaper and meet the pocket of most people compared to orthodox medicines.
Throughout history, we have known about how potent herbs can be and the role herbs have played in ensuring good health and treating diseases.
We have also seen some of its healing powers, especially in areas where accessing orthodox medicine has been a challenge. In fact, but for herbal medicine, our health facilities would have been even more congested with so many patients.
The big problem, however, is that among the genuine herbal products are those concoctions produced by unscrupulous fraudsters with the sole purpose of making money. Some of them are even just mixing orthodox medicines such as sedatives with some concoctions, making the consumer, who gets the side effect of sleep, for instance, think that the concoction is potent.
The issue is, how does the consumer know which is which since it seems that our authorities have not been able to hold such people in check and they hawk their concoctions freely everywhere without fear?
There is also a certain perception that herbal medicines have no side effects. From the work of the Centre for Plant Medicine Research at Mampong, we know that cannot be true. In the same way that orthodox medicines are given in some doses, so are herbal medicines.
Herbal medicine will continue to play a critical role in ensuring good health of Ghanaians but there is the need for more education of our people to be circumspect in what they buy and where they get their herbal medicines. The Centre for Plant Medicine Research, for instance, is a well-established health centre whose products can be vouched for.
Going forward, the mobile vending of herbal medicine must be discouraged. There should be identifiable locations where such medicines are sold so that in case of any complications, it can be traced back to the source. Hawkers, if any, should have some form of identification.