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The BBC's Jane Standley reports on new uses for traditional remedies
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Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 13:16 GMT
Patent protection for traditional African remedies
Healers are concerned their remedies will be stolen

By the BBC's Jane Standley

The South African government is to introduce new laws allowing traditional medicines to enjoy the same patent rights as expensively developed pharmaceuticals.

The move comes as more and more research is carried out into the healing properties of the the plants used by the "Sangomas" or, tribal healers.

Belief in these healers is still strong in South Africa - it is estimated that eight in ten of the population have at some time consulted them.

You are dealing with something that is embedded in their daily lives
Dr Ben Ngubane, Minister for Technology
And when their medicines are put under the spotlight of rigorous clinical trials, some are found to be effective.

In one case, the extract of a plant traditionally given to control thirst is to be marketed by a pharmaceutical company as an appetite suppressant.

Dr Ben Ngubane, The minister for arts, culture and technology in the South African government, said that a model for the new patent law was still under development.

He said: "The intellectual property laws we have are all based on the Western model. You are dealing with something that is embedded in their daily lives."

At the University of Capetown, research is underway into the properties of other remedies.

The plants are being analysed in the hope they will aid the fight against tuberculosis and malaria.

Researcher Sibongile Perfile said that nature was the source for many of the world's most influential medicines.

She said: "A very common and frequently used product is aspirin, whose active ingredient is salycillic acid - now salycillic acid has been obtained from the bark of a tree.

"People do not actually realise what they are taking is derived from a natural source."

Natural suspicions

However, mainly traditional healers are concerned that the secrets of their remedies may be "spirited away" by drug companies for profit, and many refuse to cooperate with modern doctors and researchers.

Philip Kibukeli is an exception - he is trying to persuade his colleagues to work more closely with researchers.

He said: "They feel very much left aside by Western doctors and that is why they don't want to divulge any secrets.

"I'm trying my level best that there should be a real cooperation between Western doctors and traditional healers."

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See also:
29 Jul 99 |  Health
Quality checks for herbal remedies
01 Nov 99 |  Health
'End alternative therapy free-for-all'
26 Aug 99 |  Health
Britons turning to alternative cures
06 Feb 99 |  Health
Glimmer of hope for homeopathy cures

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