Half of herbal medicines sold in Nairobi not safe for humans – survey

Almost half of herbal medicines sold in Nairobi and neighbouring counties are not safe for human use, shows tests done at the national drugs quality laboratory.

Tests carried out at the National Quality Control Laboratory (NQCL) of the Ministry of Health, suggests a lot of herbal medicines being sold in the country for treatment of serious diseases are a threat to human health.

A team from the national laboratory and the University of Nairobi has tested herbal medicines sold for the treatment of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, ulcers, arthritis, HIV, and tuberculosis and found them highly contaminated with disease-causing germs.

The report based on samples collected in Nairobi, Machakos, Kajiado and Kiambu, says the findings may be a reflection of the quality of herbal medicines sold across the country.

The laboratory had analysed 86 samples consisting of tablets, capsules, liquids, and powder dosage forms obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, herbal clinics, and open-air markets within Nairobi metropolitan area.

“Overall, 47.7 per cent of the tested products were non-compliant with established specifications for microbiological quality,” says the report published last week (27th May 2021) in the Journal of Herbal Medicine.

Nairobi, the authors say was chosen, because it is a central distributive point for most commercial herbal products to the rest of the country. Therefore, the study suggests the results may be a reflection of herbal products in the wider Kenya market.

“The medicines are heavily contaminated with pathogenic microbes thus underscoring the need for stringent quality assurance policies to safeguard the public from low quality and contaminated herbal medicines,” says the report.

The study was done by Khadija Mohamed Hassan and Nicholas Mwaura Njuguna of the quality laboratory, and Peter Mbugua Njogu and Stanley Njagi Ndwiga of the University of Nairobi.

The medicines were found highly contaminated with the disease-causing E. coli and salmonella bacteria. The latter is a major cause of stomach upsets characterized by diarrhea, fever, dehydration, and pain, and cramping in the belly.

This family of bacteria is also known to cause serious illnesses such as typhoid and chronic arthritis.

On the other hand E.coli bacteria are the most frequent cause of many infections including blood poisoning, infection of the gallbladder, and the bile and urinary systems.

It is also a major cause of serious diseases such as meningitis in young children and pneumonia.

Lead author Dr Njogu of the University of Nairobi while authenticating the survey was reluctant to comment due to what he said were publisher limitations.

However, the original report shows the quality of these products may be worse than recorded in the published account.

The original report shows the samples had also been tested for the presence of heavy metals with some found to exceed the safe levels for human use.

For example, the tests showed high presence of mercury and arsenic in the products and warn that the latter puts users at the risk of developing cancer.

The team recommends judicious use of herbal medicines especially in children as well as  stringent regulation to ensure only compliant products get to the market.

In 2013, the laboratory issued a similar warning after testing herbal medicines   from supermarkets, roadside vendors, retail pharmacies and herbal clinics from all over the county and reported high levels of bacterial contamination.

In 2017 a study by the Kenya Medical Research Institute reported about 90 per cent of tested samples of herbal medicines sold in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Eldoret to have been contaminated with germs some resistant to common antibiotics.

By Gatonye Gathura

About Gatonye Gathura 125 Articles
Science Journalist

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