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Umhlonyane and COVID-19

Written by Allison Cooper

As the celebration of African Traditional Medicine Week take place in August, Vuk’uzenzele takes a closer look at umhlonyane also know as lengana which has been very popular amongst South Africans in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Traditional African Medicine is a holistic field involving the use of home-grown herbs and African spirituality. About 80 percent of Africa's population relies on traditional medicine for their basic health needs.

During the month of August, the Traditional Healers Organisation will celebrate African Traditional Medicine Week which takes pace from 26 to 31 August by;

  • continuing its advocacy work; 
  • intensifying its campaign to promote, protect and develop the traditional medicine industry; 
  • encouraging communities to consume traditional medicines; 
  • and discussing their benefits.

“Traditional medicine is part of our cultural heritage and a human right. People must be afforded every right to healing and treatment,” says Phephsile Maseko, the organisation’s national coordinator. 

“It is not only medicine, but food, and has contributed hugely to the healthcare of many people across the world,” she adds.

Umhlonyane and COVID-19

Many more people are aware of the plant Artemisa afra, known as umhlonyane, after claims from Madagascar that it can cure COVID-19.

According to Professor Alvaro Viljoen, the National Research Chair in Phytomedicine and Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Herbal Drugs Research Unit at Tshwane University of Technology, umhlonyane is extensively distributed throughout South Africa and ranks as one of the most widely used plants in traditional medicine practices.

“The plant species used in Madagascar is claimed to be Artemisia annua, which is very different to the indigenous Artemisa afra found in South Africa,” says Viljoen.

He explains that it would be reckless to assume that the species are similar, as their chemistry is very different. 

“Umhlonyane is well-known for the treatment of upper and lower respiratory tract infections – where symptoms include chills, cough, throat infection, cold, fever, swelling of the throat, bronchitis and a blocked nose. Several in vitro studies have confirmed antibacterial properties of umhlonyane extracts, but no antiviral activity has been reported,” he adds.

“Research into whether it is effective in treating COVID-19 is ongoing. We have partnered with the Department of Science and Innovation to investigate its benefits,” says Maseko.

She stresses, however, that there is no danger in using traditional medicine, when prescribed by a credible traditional medicine practitioner. “You must mix it well with other medicinal plant mixtures and it must be used correctly,” she says.