Roots of the problem: how safe is your traditional medicine?
New study on wild garlic red-flags potential danger and says far more rigorous testing is needed
Almost half of South Africans consult traditional healers, but the medicines they use are not being tested properly.
The warning comes in the SA Journal of Science, where researchers from the Vaal University of Technology say extracts of wild garlic can damage the chromosomes of cells.
The team chose this plant, whose formal name is Tulbaghia violacea, because it is commonly used by the country’s 200,000 healers to treat a wide range of ailments.
But their results also raise a red flag for the use of many other traditional medicines.
The results are worrying, since wild garlic is “passed on from one generation to the next without any scientific evidence available on this plant and its potential dangers”, according to the researchers.
Lead author Lerato Madike explains: “Wild garlic is commonly used in traditional medicine for the treatment of various ailments, including fungal infections, gastrointestinal ailments, asthma, fever, colds and pulmonary tuberculosis.
“We assessed the potential genotoxic effects of water extracts from the leaves, stems and roots.”
The scientists found that concentration levels played a role, as did the choice of which part of the plant was used.
“The results confirm that water extracts of [wild garlic] exert significant genotoxic effects at higher concentrations, with the stem extracts being more toxic than the leaf and root extracts at similar concentrations,” said Madike.
The plant is found in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and northern Gauteng, and in Zimbabwe. It has traditionally been used extensively to treat HIV/Aids and oral fungal infections.
Consumption of medication prepared from wild garlic “has been associated with a variety of undesirable symptoms such as abdominal pain, inflammation, gastroenteritis, acute inflammation”, the Vaal researchers said.
This is what prompted the researchers to test its genotoxicity, meaning its ability to damage the genetic information in a cell and cause mutations. These, in turn, could lead to cancer.
According to the researchers “there has been a significant increase in the number of herbal medicinal products globally”.
In the southern hemisphere, approximately 80% of the population still relies on “a traditional system of medicine based on herbal drugs for primary healthcare”.
More than 1.5 million medicinal plants have been investigated and most of them are reported to contain toxic substances.
“It should be stressed that the use of any plant for medicinal purposes is not guaranteed to be safe,” said Madike.
“This raises the need for further research on the mode of preparation and the toxicology of medicinal plants to gather reliable information on their safety and effective use.”