NWU student investigates indigenous precautions for the safe use of plant medicine

    Simangaliso Lesley Mashego, a master’s student in Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the North-West University’s (NWU’s) campus in Mahikeng, is doing research about safety measures employed by a rural Khoi-San community for commonly used medicinal plants as a way to improve health care in South Africa.

    The research focused on 10 communally used medicinal plants, five of which were reported to be “strong” and “less safe” by the participants. There was a high level of agreement among the participants regarding the safe use of six of the medicinal plants investigated in Simangaliso’s research.

    These plants were found in the yards of all the participants. Furthermore, in terms of assessing the level of agreement on the informant consensus factor (ICF), the plants displayed an ICF of 0,88-1 for cancerous, respiratory and renal illnesses.
    Plant medicines referred to as strong may cause adverse effects such as dizziness, vomiting, diarrhoea and poisoning if consumed in high doses. The safety measures include identifying a suitable plant for a particular illness, using the correct part of the plant, correct preparation, and right dosage and storage.

    A significant finding of the research was that certain plants with a spiritual use had to be handled by expert practitioners.

    “Medicinal plants play an integral part in meeting the health care needs of 80% of the African population, especially those in rural areas,” said Simangaliso. “Additionally, there is a growing demand for medicinal plants especially in urban areas because most conventional medicine does not work on most people who take them.”

    Even though there is an increasing demand for medicinal plants, oral platforms for transferring indigenous knowledge on the safe and correct use of plant medicine from practitioner to trainee or from parent to child is being lost, resulting in fewer informed people. “Therefore this increases the number of people who use plant medicine incorrectly and could lead to cases of adverse reactions or acute poisoning,” said Simangaliso.

    His research has confirmed that Khoi-San communities have measures to ensure that the medicinal plants they use are safe.

    “There is a need for research that acknowledges how indigenous communities ensure the safety of the medicinal plants they use. This should be done in order to formulate comprehensive and community (indigenous health) relevant plant inventories which can be used in health education programs that will prevent the misuse of medicinal plants and thereby avoid cases of poisoning,” concluded Simangaliso.