There have been many commentaries on the potential to discover new drugs from plants in PNG because of it’s vast biodiversity. I do not want to go into all that. There is are more controversial but I think equally interesting to those who are bit more academically inclined like myself. I am talking about the use of herbal medicine to treat people suffering from AIDS.
Anti-retroviral drugs used in treating AIDS patients are very expensive. If you are taking AIDS medication for a year, the cost will soar into the thousands. That is if private treatment. Thankfully, donor agencies have bought this drugs and made them available for free at designated clinics (e.g. Heduru Clinic at PMGH) around Papua New Guinea so the cost of getting anti-retroviral medication is not felt.
Then there have been the stories in the newspapers of AIDS patients being “cured” of AIDS. What I am interested in is I would like to know if these patients are really “cured” or that the herbal treatment just improves their immune system that they gain weight and their overall nutritional status improves. WHO recommends and encourages the use of traditional medicine along with modern/western medicine depending on the cultural context. Furthermore, the use of traditional medicinal plants to treat common diseases must be verified by a qualified doctor and must be declared to be safe before use. This has encouraged the institutionalisation of traditional medical practise in China and Japan. China in-fact offers medical degree (MD) to study traditional Chinese medicine.
A classic example is acupuncture. There is no solid scientific or physiological basis for its use yet it’s very popular. Though some research has been done to explain how it cures common ailments.
Back to traditional medicine in PNG, I think it needs to be further studied and verified. Not really to develop drugs from the plants but to institutionalised its practise. Even if we do not understand how it works, if it works, why don’t we use them. Along with modern medicine.
So regarding the use of herbal medicine in treating AIDS sufferers in PNG, I think it has a place and we need to find that place. We can work along side those providing this kind of herbal treatment and do blood test of the AIDS patients to determine if the herbal medicine is working or not. If it’s working, then how is it working? Is it really killing the HIV virus (which I doubt) but merely improving the immune status of the patient (which I think is really happening) so that the body is able to fight off common infections in AIDS patients. For this kind of work, appropriate ethical approval has to granted first.
One of these days, I am planning to do something to satisfy my intellectual curiosity but not sure if I will get willing herbal medicine practitioners. They might think I am after their trade secret.