Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 00:06 UK

What does medicine owe to Africa?

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Bushmen. Pic caption:Credit: Chris Sattlberger/SPL
Bushmen use a plant to suppress their appetites
The contribution of European culture to medicine has long been recognised.

The Greeks are thought by many to be forerunners of modern medicine - they studied the progression of disease, they knew something of the inner workings of the body, and their language gave medicine many of its terms.

But the Greeks probably learnt much from the Ancient Egyptians who understood the workings of the body from practising mummification.

Imhotep, architect of the famous step pyramids, has even been dubbed the first "father of medicine" for his influence.

Egyptologist Stephen Quirke said that, although the information from the time is sketchy, Imhotep did have an important role to play.

He is credited with diagnosing and treating over 200 diseases and even performing surgery and dentistry. Some say his work even influenced Hippocrates.

There is a very close connection in African thinking between the spiritual and physical
Professor Peter Houghton, University College London

Katie Maggs, associate medical curator at London's Science Museum, said much of Africa's contribution to medicine had been overlooked.

"There is evidence that suggests African medicine, and primarily Egyptian healing cults and physicians, had an influence on Greek cultures and that there was a cultural exchange of ideas."

She added: "African medicine is a thriving enterprise.

"But there is a debate to be had about why Indian and Chinese medicines which you can get on the High Street, but African medicine is still very much a taboo subject. We need to go beyond that."

And she said Western medicine would not thrive in Africa if the medical knowledge built up there over centuries was ignored.

"The provision of bio-medical care won't happen unless people work very closely with traditional healers," she said.

On sale

Professor Peter Houghton, an expert in the study of natural medicines at University College London, said the medical establishment had traditionally dismissed herbal remedies as not having a scientific basis but that it was now possible to test the compounds involved.

A bronze statue of Imhotep next to a porcelain figure of Hippocrates
Imhotep: the first founder of medicine?

"We can analyse these complex mixtures and their complex effects on the body.

"There is a lot more interest in how we might be able to utilise these medicines."

He said a number of African herbal remedies were currently on sale in the UK or over the internet.

"One which is quite widely known is Devil's Claw, which is the root of a plant which comes from the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa, and is used for aches and pains.

"Then there is a cream made from an extract of the fruit of the sausage tree, that grows all over along the rivers in Savannah countryside, which I am doing some work on.

"The local people have used it for a long time for treating skin conditions, but you can get a cream on the internet in this country which some say is good for getting rid of pigmented areas and freckles and others say is useful for psoriasis.

"I would stress that this needs clinical tests, but that is the case for lots and lots of herbal medicines."

He added: "There was a lot of interest a few years ago in the anti-obesity properties of a South African plant called hootia, which looks like a cactus and was used by the bushmen to suppress their appetites when they went hunting."

Professor Houghton said the African contribution to medicine tended to be overlooked.

"It tends to be a continent, though not the only one, where you associate medicine with so-called witchcraft.

"But there is a very close connection in African thinking between the spiritual and physical.

"And now increasingly people are realising that you can't just treat people as machines, and that is one of the reasons for the popularity of complementary medicines - that people get treated more as people."


SEE ALSO
Medicine from around the globe
02 Mar 06 |  Health
Mushrooms: 'the new medicine'
29 Dec 01 |  Health
Herbs help Africa's Aids fight
13 Sep 02 |  Health
Plant sap 'causes cancer'
13 May 03 |  Health

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