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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 08:49 GMT
Medicinal plant 'fights' Aids
Sutherlandia
Not just a pretty plant
By Carolyn Dempster in Johannesburg

A South African indigenous medicinal plant may hold the key to the treatment of millions of poor people living with HIV and Aids, helping them relieve the symptoms of Aids.

For the first time in South Africa's medical history, the plant, Sutherlandia Frutescens, sub-species Microphylla, is to undergo clinical trials to assess its immune-boosting properties.


We are certainly not making the absurd claim that Sutherlandia is a cure-all or a cure for Aids

Dr Nigel Gericke
Phyto Nova
The Medical Research Council will conduct the trials early next year and results are expected within three to six months.

Anecdotal evidence is already mounting, suggesting that this plant can improve the quality of life of thousands of people both with HIV and full-blown Aids.

Sutherlandia Frutescens grows wild in the Western Cape and in the hills of Zululand.

Cancer bush

A particular variety of the plant has been used for centuries as a potent medicine by South Africa's indigenous San people who call it "Insisa" - the one that dispels darkness. They used it as an energy booster and a powerful anti-depressant.

Dr Credo Mutwa
Traditional healers have been using it for decades

Zulu sangomas or traditional healers know it as "Unwele", the great medicine that was used to ward off the effects of the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic which claimed 20 million lives worldwide.

The Tswana people know it as "Mukakana" for its power in treating gonorrhoea and syphilis, while the Afrikaners call it the "Kankerbossie" or cancer bush, because of its properties in treating people suffering with internal cancers and wasting.

Molecular combination

A local company specialising in the development of indigenous plant medicines, Phyto Nova, first started researching the bio-chemical properties of Sutherlandia about three years ago.

Workers harvesting Sutherlandia
Phyto Nova planted acres of the plant

A multi-disciplinary team headed by Dr Nigel Gericke, a botanist, medical doctor and indigenous plant specialist, found that Sutherlandia contained a powerful combination of molecules which have been identified and used in the treatment of patients with cancer tuberculosis, diabetes, schizophrenia and clinical depression and as an antiretroviral agent.

Phyto Nova were so convinced that Sutherlandia could be used as a tonic for people infected with HIV and Aids, that they contracted farmers to plant acres of the bush, to prevent wild supplies being over-harvested. They have been manufacturing high quality Sutherlandia tablets, gel and powder.

Having determined that the product was safe when administered with a balanced food diet, the company distributed Sutherlandia to Aids patients.

Quality of life

"Anecdotally we are accumulating evidence that wasted patients with Aids, TB and cancer pick up weight, regain energy and appetite," says Dr Gericke.

"The claim we are making on the basis of this, is that we can significantly and dramatically improve the quality of life of many ill Aids patients... We are certainly not making the absurd claim that Sutherlandia is a cure-all or a cure for Aids."


Sutherlandia does not work properly just on a diet of porridge - you have to have vegetables

Virginia Rathele
Nurse and sangoma
Whatever comes of the clinical trial, word of the plant's properties is already spreading among South Africa's traditional healers.

At the same time as Phyto Nova was conducting its research, one of the country's most venerated traditional healers, Dr Credo Mutwa, 80, was using Sutherlandia to treat Aids patients.

"My aunt Minah, who is 103 years old, told me that we should use the great medicine against Aids," said Dr Mutwa. "I said to her: 'But aunt, the white people tell us there is no cure for this disease'.

"And my aunt said: 'For every disease there is a treatment. Try this medicine'. And I tried it."

'Near-miraculous'

"I have treated people who were told by the doctors at the hospital to 'go home and die' and they are still alive today, three years after they should have died. This plant is near-miraculous, I can say that with certainty," he says.

Sutherlandia tablets
Tablets, powder and gel are already on sale

Testimony to the efficacy of the plant continues to mount.

Anne Hutchings, an ethno-botanist and lecturer at the University of Zululand has been using Sutherlandia, together with a range of other indigenous plant medicines, to treat Aids patients who attend the weekly Aids clinic at Ngwelezane Hospital.

She has 176 patients who all testify that Sutherlandia has helped them to live a fuller, healthier and more productive life.

No response

In the Northern Cape town of Kuruman, nurse and sangoma, Virginia Rathele is using Sutherlandia at her clinic to treat more than 300 Aids patients.

She says an integral part of the treatment is to tell patients to eat healthily. "Sutherlandia does not work properly just on a diet of porridge. You have to have vegetables," she said.

Virginia Rathele, nurse and sangoma
Rathele says that Sutherlandia only works with a balanced diet

One client, who weighed 26kg and was close to death in April this year, now weighs 45kg and is helping Ms Rathele run the clinic.

Patents cannot be taken out on plants which have well-documented folk use, which means that Sutherlandia should remain accessible to anyone.

At present, one month's supply of Phyto Nova tablets costs a little under $2.50 and two months' supply of the powder form of the medication can be bought for under 50 cents.

Phyto Nova has approached the South African Government in a bid to persuade them to grow the plant on a massive scale for use in public health treatment.

So far they have had no response.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
By Carolyn Dempster in Johannesburg
The San call it Insisa - the one that dispels the darkness
See also:

27 Nov 01 | Africa
Hand out Aids drug says SA judge
19 Apr 01 | Africa
Joy at SA Aids drugs victory
19 Apr 01 | Health
SA Aids case: The repercussions
30 Jul 01 | Africa
Church rejects plea on condoms
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