Researchers turn to a banned plant, to save 500,000 dying yearly.
Five-year-old Obinga lies on a bed, waiting for her death. She has been given all the anti-malaria tablets from the local pharmaceutical store, but the high fever persists. Until a researcher runs in with a cup of tisane.
Malaria kills 500,000 persons yearly, mostly Africans, and the situation has become worrying as the parasite developed new resistance to anti-malaria tablets and mosquitoes daring insecticides. Today, no vaccine is available, but long-suffering Africans are now turning to a plant, Artemisia Annua, that cures malaria even when it is rejected by the World Health Organization (WHO), and banned in a league of other nations, perhaps in the interest of pharmaceutical giants that are fighting to maintain their “malaria business.”
In Faharetana, Madagascar, farms stretching hundreds of hectares loom as one of the largest threats to the malaria business. 10,000 Madagascan peasants harvest Artemisia Annua, originating from China, earning €700 per person a season, providing superior benefits to planting rice, in a country where a peasant farmer earns less than €1 per day. The smell of Artemisia Annua perfumed the air of Madagascan villages, but the herbal plant was meant for exportation to big pharmaceutical conglomerates and not for local treatment. Also, some perceive Artemisia as a dangerous plant, forbidden in France and Belgium, even when it’s neither toxic nor classified as a drug. Artemisia is only dangerous to those who make a business of malaria.
A brief recall of a long struggle
A stint of recent struggles enables one understand the controversy. Malaria is a mosquito-borne infection spread by Anopheles mosquitoes. The Plasmodium parasite that induces malaria is a single-celled parasite that multiplies in the red-blood cells of humans, as well as within the mosquito intestine. The most severe form of malaria — the focus of this reportage — is caused by Plasmodium falciparum. Children, like Obinga, are principal victims. In hyper endemic areas, like sub-Saharan Africa, one in five children die of malaria.
Since the dawn of time, humans have fought malaria on two fronts: against the parasite and the mosquitoes. To fight Anopheles, populations have used insecticides, like DDT, which swept malaria off the shores of industrialized nations. In 1964 Europe was declared malaria-free, while to this day exposed populations in Africa protect themselves using mosquito nets. The 1980s saw the emergence of long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito nets. Recommended by the WHO, these mosquito nets are often distributed free-of-charge. Parallel to the fight against mosquitoes became grafted the fight against the parasite. The bark of a tree offers the first anti-malaria substance that became Quinine. Isolated and synthetized, Quinine was commercialized under the name of Chloroquine — which launched the malaria business.
The Vietnam War revealed the existence of an alternative treatment. American soldiers took Chloroquine to protect themselves from malaria. Their Communist opponents had no treatment, and were decimated by the sickness. The then Communist leader, Ochimin, sought help from their Chinese ‘big brother’, who offered to send him leaves of Qinghao, a medicinal plant known for more than two centuries in China, whose scientific name is Artemisia Annua. Tons of Artemisia were channeled to Vietnam, and were consumed in tisane by Communist combatants. It had the effect of a magical potion and contributed to the Vietcong victory. Many called it the first success of natural medicine against conventional one. The Chinese launched the 523 campaign, meant to study medicinal plants including Artemisia. Strangely, the West did not take interest in the plant. The WHO continued to recommend Chloroquine and other derivatives, and held that Chloroquine had reduced the illness everywhere in the world, but that its massive prescription met with resistance.
“Resistance to Chloroquine extended from South-East Asia to Africa in the 1980s,” said Pascal Ringwald of the Global Malaria Program. But director of the WHO during this time, German Velasquez, maintained excuses for not stopping the ravages of malaria should not be sought in the resistance. “On the question of malaria,” said Velasquez, “the WHO did not act quickly when resistance on Chloroquine began to emerge, and therefore tablets that followed Chloroquine sometimes arrived very late.”
First Europeans cured
At the beginning of 1980s, Malaria began again to kill in mass. A catastrophic situation triggered a graceful return to Artemisia Annua. At the same time, Chinese tablets made of Artemisia began to circulate in Africa. Writer, traveler and reporter Alexandre Poussin, was one of the first Europeans to be cured by the medicinal plant. With his wife, Alexander, the author of Africa Trek, explored Africa from the South to the North. The couple was in Kenya when Alexandre was struck by malaria crisis.
“When I was diagnosed with malaria, I wanted to try the Chinese plant on myself. We wobbled at first. But it’s very true. It works: in 24 hours I felt better; in 48 hours I was cured, I no longer had the symptoms (I was not really cured I got to discover later), but it worked,” he said. What Alexandre ignored is that Chinese tablets made of Artemisinin are very efficient in destroying malaria parasites in just a few hours. But some parasites evade the treatment, and could only be destroyed by combining Artemisia with other molecules. That formed the beginning of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), imposed by the WHO in all countries, leading to an African boom in planting Artemisia Annua.
In 2001, while on Africa Trek in Ethiopia, Alexandre faced a new malaria crisis. “I had P. falciparum, and we did not have the Chinese treatment. The fever was high-pitched and would have led to my death. At a local dispensary, with permission, I was given a tisane of Artemisia. Not the industrialized tablet, but the plant served as a local tea.” He smiled at the recall and continued, “I drank three litters of the tisane in a day. In the evening I felt much better, and the following day I felt relieved of the symptoms. Fifteen years on, I never slipped back nor sought cure in Western medication.”
Narrated in his book that sold 400,000 copies, this episode captured the attention of doctors, herbalists and humanitarians. But they stumbled onto the dogma. “When people plan to travel in Africa and Asia, they come to ask us for the plant. Unfortunately, we tell them we do not stock them due to French laws.” In Belgium a royal bill listed the plant among prohibited materials. In neighboring Luxembourg, where Artemisia is allowed, Pierre Lutgen, retired Chemist now working with an NGO, saw his work stopped by the WHO and Big Pharma when a delegation visited the Luxembourgian Cooperation to request that it stop financing research on the plant.
A week later the WHO published a severe warning on its website: The WHO does not recommend the use of A. annua plant material, in any form, including tea, for the treatment or prevention of malaria.
Hundreds of tenacious African researchers refuse to be deterred.
African researchers brave their way
Senegal’s sun is favorable to planting Artemisia. And many African scientists are involved in exploring the plant, convinced of the efficacy to cure malaria. They question what justified the disregard of the medical establishment to Artemisia Annua. The recurrent argument evoked is the sacrosanct principle of precaution. But was precaution strictly applied to other anti-malaria tablets from pharmaceutical companies with severe side effects, like Lariam (commonly called Mefloquine), whose secondary effects could be devastating to sensible persons? Belgian singer Stromae points to Lariam as being the cause of his malaria crisis, just as did soldiers during the Iraqi war. Despite the mobilization of associations for the barn of Mefloquine, it figures among recommended tablets by the WHO. In Maniema, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr Jerome Munyang is among African researchers braving the way. His difficult journey reflects that of scientists who defends adapting medicine to the conditions of the continent. He was personally cured of malaria by plants of Artemisia. He decided to pursue a doctorate focusing on Artemisia in Paris.
“After three weeks of analysis we were quite surprised by the results that we observed in a laboratory,” recalled Dr Munyang. “One of the professors told me this is a bomb, and we would not like this bomb to come out of our laboratory because our funded comes from pharmaceutical firms. My notes were forcibly taken from, my Artemisia results and plants confiscated and taken to the office of the director of the laboratory.”
Stripped of his scholarship and expelled from the university, Dr Munyang contacted Lucile Cornet-Vernet, the founder of an association in support of Artemisia Annua, who helped him continue his research in France.
In Senegal, Dr Abdoulaye Diallo started studies on Artemisia in a laboratory in Thies.
Quick Success in Maniema, Congo
Thanks to funding obtained by Lucile Cornet-Vernet, Dr Munyang extended the research to Maniema, in the DRC. 1000 patients of falciparum were identified. 500 were given a tisane and the 500 an ACT. Dr Michel Idoumbo of the DRC was the study’s principal investigator.
Before treatment, they took blood samples of all the patients to examined them at well-equipped laboratories, numerating the parasitic dose. They randomly prescribed some tisane to a group of patients and a dose of ACT to the other group. They spent four months gathering data daily. Both groups had good clinical results. But parasitological study revealed that patients who drank tisane were completely relieved of all parasitic charge, but patients prescribed ACT still had parasites in their blood even when their clinical state had improved. “While ACT is judged to be efficient at 80%, tisane scores an efficiency rate of 97%,” Dr Idoumbo said. “And without secondary effect.”
“The results were surprisingly positive, and that’s when troubles began with conventional medicine,” Dr Munyang added. “The first trouble was the cancellation of the conference scheduled at the end of the result by the head doctor of the district,” Dr Munyang said. Dr Idoumbo was then expelled from duty.
After the publication of the study, a pharmaceutical store informed Dr Munyang that he and his team are stepping on their business as ACT sales nosedived. Apart from Big Pharma, local pharmaceutical stores frown at the tisane.
Persuaded after their participation in the first study, the villagers adopt the tisane as their malaria cure. A second study was conducted in 2016 at the village school for six months. Children were served two cups of Artemisia twice a week, as a preventive measure. No pupil suffered of malaria during this period. A third study by Dr Munyang separated the villagers into those served Artemisia Annua and those given the African specie, Artemisia Afra, which does not contain artemisinin, the principal anti-malaria substance. The results were identical in the second sub-group, which proves that artemisinin is not a substance with therapeutic effect.
Dr Munyang’s study was completed since 2015. To gain scientific notoriety it has to be published in a recognized peer-reviewed journal. But Western editors are hesitant to studies based on herbal plants, which explains why the Next Einstein Forum launched Scientific African, a peer-reviewed, open access, inter- and multidisciplinary scientific journal — to enable African scientists publish research that matter to the continent. Contributing both finances and expertise to a locally-led community of scientists to further explore the medicinal qualities of Artemisia, coordinated by the WHO, in association with the US government, United Kingdom, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, could stop the ravages of this apocalyptic illness called malaria that kills half a million of Africa’s poor yearly.
The interest of researchers at the Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts on Artemisia could form the beginning of such partnership.
Then, one in five children who die of malaria, like Obinga, could live.
By the Next Einstein Forum/Kevin Eze.