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Why are forests important resources to the pharmacetical industry

THE first part focussed on trees and plants as materials of high medicinal values and how they became centre of attention as far as treatment of various ailments and sicknesses are concerned.

In this final part of the discussion about forests, trees and various plants as major sources of raw-materials for the pharmaceutical industry; the discussion dwells about the extent and applicability of plant materials in curing various diseases and the role of scientific research in shaping identification and suitability of plant curative materials in the medical care and uses.

It is well-known from historical trends and various documentations that human-beings have used plants, plant constituents, herbal provisions and finished plant/herbal products, among others as food, medical therapy and disease prevention.

Additionally, in some particular local conditions people have used plant/herbal materials for cosmetics and as natural dyes. Again, during the past until now some tribes like the “Wahadzabe” in central Tanzania rely heavily on plant/herbal materials for their well-being.

For instance, about 90% of their food and medicinal requirements is entirely obtained from forest resources. Mostly depend on gathering natural foods from forests including hunting and collecting honey. They also use some poisonous materials obtained from plants and fix on arrows and spearheads used for hunting and warfare.

It is through traditional/indigenous technical knowledge combined with scientific information about chemical composition and structures of plant/herbal mechanisms of action that enabled scientists to extract active chemical elements that became beneficial to the medical industry.

Despite booming modern medical services in developed and developing countries; it is acknowledged that the role of traditional systems in health care is still highly recognized. Some research work in 2013 revealed that about 80% of the world population residing in developing countries depend on plant products for primary health services.

This does not mean that people in industrialized countries do not use natural herbs in their environment. Existing literature indicate that at least 20% of those living in developed countries are also using about 25% of medicines derived directly from plant products.

Such medicines and drugs include those against cardiovascular ailments; malignancies; diabetes; chronic obstructive airways diseases as well as parasitic and microbial infections.

Through research and experiences generated over the past centuries, it was reasonably understood that indigenous systems of medicinal practices in the Latin America and the Asian Region (including China); have been widely studied and recognized by reflecting on their contributions to the development of new drugs and medicines.

In contrast, not sufficient research and documentation have been done in the African continent; where traditional healing and diseases curing therapies using traditional customary systems have been in practice for centuries.

Developed countries have capacities in terms of trained and skilled human-power, equipment including predictable and sustainable financial resources to conduct timely and relevant research and documentation compared to most of the least developed countries (LDCs).

Generally, available and accessible information indicate that still there is a lot to be done (through research and other scientific studies) that could benefit the modern world in terms of alternative sources of medicines in the context of what is available from the natural environment.

Experiences show that until now a relatively small fraction of the Planet Earth’s “green/natural pharmacy” has been studied and evaluated thus, a lot more work is needed to advance nature’s power and its contributions to the medical industry.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2002 reported that in many countries, the leading health care system is based on modern medicines. Alternatively, the forest and herbal plant-based treatments are among frequently used health-care in many countries.

The information by WHO further indicated that approximately 75% of the French population; 70% of that of Canada; 48% of that of Australia; 42% of that of the USA and 38% of that of Belgium use traditional medicines, at least, once in their life time.

Furthermore, about 80% of the African population use traditional medicines for prevention and curing of various diseases; whereas considerable extent in the Asian and American populations incorporate traditional medicine practices in their daily health-care.

Experiences in various countries indicate that traditional medicines is encouraged by aversion of modern medicines with side effects due to chemicals hence the need for alternatives available in natural green pharmacies in forests/woodlands.

This is more prompted by the brief that traditional medicines have fewer side-effects compared to industrial processed medicines; but also hinging on general traditions, customary and personal beliefs. Again, traditional health therapies are acknowledged as excellent for general health maintenance and for minor ailments such as colds, headaches; sleeplessness (insomnia), rashes, allergies plus depression.

Additionally, traditional medicine practices are helpful in the sense that many people, in developing countries, cannot afford the relatively high costs of modern medicines; thus indebted to depend on relatively cheaper traditional therapies.

So far the world is engulfed by corona-virus leading to COVID-19 yet with no cure or prevention. Since there is “mother nature’s green pharmacy”; efforts be made to research and undertake serious scientific studies about various trees species and herbal plants that can help the entire world from threats resulting from COVID-19.

For instance, research in rainforests in Latin America indicated that water collected from the forest-soils contains cancer-fighting elements. Again there is tremendous knowledge about use of certain plants in enhancing our bodies’ health conditions.

For instance, tree/plant/herbal leaves like those of some Eucalyptus species; “Mchaichai” (i.e. Cymbopogon citrutus) and “Kashwagara” have been applied in steam/vapour therapies in various local context. This practice of steam therapy (kujifukiza) is highly recognized and practised in Tanzania as one way to fight COVID-19.

These plants possess essential oils that can assist in maintaining well functioning respiratory systems of our bodies. However, more research is highly needed for solutions how best such therapies be practiced without leading to unforeseen side-effects.

• Dr. Kilahama is a Retired Director of Forestry and Beekeeping

Author: Dr. Felician Kilahama

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