Pawpaws and Sodom apple cure bilharzia, say scientists

A ground-breaking innovation by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, now awaiting approval, could see over 7 million Kenyans suffering from the potentially fatal bilharzia disease find a cure from simple remedies like pawpaw juice and roots of solanum, commonly referred to as sodom apple. The breakthrough would lead to a surge in demand for pawpaws and could also see domestication of the sodom apple, a common weed in many parts of Kenya and the East African region.

Professor Susy Muchika said work with mice had proved that pawpaws provided high levels of immunity and offered protection against bilharzias to animals. The same result has been noticed with solanum roots. The researchers from the Zoology Department of the University say that the destruction of the bilharzia parasties using the chemicals in papaya and sodom apple's roots would provide a cheaper alternative to the prohibitively expensive drugs currently in use.

The most common drug used to cure bilharzia is praziquantel, which costs from Sh250 to Sh350 a dose, with a patient requiring two doses, putting the cost beyond the reach of many of those affected. Oxamniquine is the only alternative to praziquantel, but its supply is very limited and does cost Sh600 to Sh700. But the new remedy is set to be far cheaper. “Once approved, we will be able to roll it out in small packages for the people who cannot afford it.

The package will be equivalent to the praziquantel dose. We plan to slash the rates to half, but we will need a lot of supply of pawpaws from farmers and sodom apples. We are currently in talks with the farmers,” said Maggie Tengo, one of the researchers in the project. According to the scientists, both pawpaws and sodom apple roots possess a unique compound that reduces the potency of the Schistosoma mansoni, the parasite responsible for bilharzia, and then further facilitate the complete immobilization of the parasite.

The protection period is 2 years, after which a person would need to take another dose. Bilharzia -also known as schistosomiasis- is a health problem that affects affects an estimated 207 million people in the tropics, causing an estimated 500,000 deaths a year. Farmers in irrigation schemes like Mwea and Ahero are particularly prone to the scourge due to the presence of a water snail that forms part of the transmission stages of the parasitic worm. The parasitic worm passes through a water snail which thrives in wet conditions provided by irrigation canals.

Women washing clothes in infested water are at risk, with 40 million women of childbearing age infected in SubSaharan Africa. Hygiene and playing in mud and water also makes children vulnerable to infection. Signs of the disease include too much coughing, a lot of abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. In extreme cases, blood is visible in the urine and portends a slow and painful death. The intensity and prevalence of infection then rises with age and peaks usually between 15 to 20 years. In areas where the disease is common, tourism is also affected, as visitors avoid bathing or swimming in waters infected by the disease transmitting snail.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter