Deforestation and over exploitation of trees that have promising anti malarial qualities have put the trees at risk of extinction with scientists warning that their their potential to become widespread treatments for malaria could be lost forever, even as Malaria continue to be among the leading killers in the country with half of the population at risk of infection and over 34,000 children dying annually due to lack of doctors or drugs.
In a research released by Kenya Medical Research Institute's (KEMRI) Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research, 22 trees and shrubs were identified by traditional medicinal practitioners and scientists as having the most potential for further study. But while not all species of anti malarial trees are at risk, wanton deforestation of most species were putting Kenya's efforts at making a breakthrough in Malaria treatment even harder.
Indeed, without clear research or proper guidance for their sustainable use, many of the plants with medicinal properties are being over-exploited and are in danger of extinction. One such plant, which is critically endangered in Kenya and threatened in other regions, is Zanthoxylum chalybeum, commonly known as “Knobwood.” It grows in dry woodlands or grasslands of eastern and southern Africa and has been found to have antimalarial properties that need to be further explored.
An extraction process from leaves, bark or root is used to effectively treat a malarial fever in many communities. Other uses for the plant include infusing tea with the leaves, making toothbrushes, and using the seeds as beads in traditional garments.
The African wild olive, Olea europaea Africana, also threatened in East Africa due to over-exploited for timber, contains organic extracts with significant levels of antimalarial activity, and is used to treat malarial and other fevers. The plant also acts as a natural laxative to expel parasites or tapeworms.
With new research revealing that trees and shrubs in East Africa that have promising anti-malarial qualities are at risk of extinction, scientists are warning that "We've only scratched the surface on the potential value of these plants.'. Although widely used by farmers and people in rural communities, most of this information has never been collected in a comprehensive way by researchers."
World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is doing its part preserving these trees and shrubs by holding samples of most of the species with antimalarial qualities in its genebank and growing these trees in plant nurseries at its headquarters in Nairobi. The ICRAF genebank holds close to 200 species, of which at least 30 are known to have antimalarial properties.
The field data was gathered by ICRAF scientists conducting research across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, where they met with approximately 180 herbalists and 100 malaria patients in 30 separate communities. KEMRI supported the process by supplying the information about each plant’s chemical compound make-up—research that is the result of a sophisticated laboratory process developed by KEMRI for testing natural products.
One of the drugs most widely used historically to treat malaria, quinine, was derived from the bark of the Cinchona tree in South America. Today, the world’s newest, most-effective therapeutic treatment for malaria also comes from a plant, the Artemisia annua shrub. However, access to malaria therapies based on artemisinin compounds remains low—around 15 percent in most parts of Africa and well below the World Health Organizations’ 80 percent target.
Beyond the complicated process to extract and test antimalarial compounds from these trees, scientists have struggled to track or replicate the treatment process as it occurs in communities. Besides the plant itself, there may be other factors contributing to a malaria patient’s recovery. For example, a healer may combine one plant with another that changes its chemical compound and boosts its effectiveness. Unless more is done to understand these processes in the field, scientists in laboratories and researchers at major drug companies will lose that knowledge.
According to a recently released report by the World Health Organisation, 90 per cent of all malaria-related deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the report, co-authored by the United Nations Children’s Fund, the knock-on effects on a country's economy are huge. The report estimated that malaria costs $12bn a year in lost GDP and eats up 25 per cent of household incomes. “In effect, malaria tightens the shackles of poverty on families and nations,” read part of the report.
Written by Alice Muriranja for African Laughter
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