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Southern Africa

ICRAF discovers Wonder Plant for curing Malaria

A single wild shrub - Artemisia annua .has become the touchstone for hopes that a successful battle can be waged against Malaria in Southern Africa

5 May 2005 - Singy Hanyona

At a time when funding to fight malaria is still sorely lacking, a kaleidoscope of research show unprecedented gains over the fight against the killer disease. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southern Africa Programme has discovered a remarkable annual shrub that will now be used to battle the malaria epidemic in the region.

As Zambia joined the rest of the world in celebrating the Africa Malaria Day on 25 April, the traditional shrub joined the conventional Coartem drug, recently approved by
the World Health Organization (WHO). In the temperate regions of China, where Artemisia annua originated, the leaves have been used to treat fevers for more than 2000 years, and published scientific studies show that the artemisinin content in the blood is high enough after drinking Artemisia tea to cure malaria.

Malaria costs African countries US$ 12 billion every year in lost Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The cost of effective malaria control in Africa would be just US$ 2 billion per year, according to WHO. Malaria is one of the biggest killer diseases in Africa but for those who cannot afford conventional drugs, there is still hope.

ICRAF Communications Consultant Parkie Mbozi says in rural Mozambique, women are already using tea made from the dried leaves to treat malaria in the nine mobile health clinics. Mbozi says for both the practitioners of traditional medicine and the pharmaceutical companies, access to the plants is the biggest barrier to using Artemisia
to cure malaria.

ICRAF-Southern Africa Programme, attracted by the usefulness of Artemisia as a medicinal species and its potential to manage pests in agroforests, began growing a special hybrid of Artemisia, A-3, with seed provided by the Pressure Group on Action for Natural Medicines (Anamed).

A-3 is especially important for the natural treatment of malaria, because it is adapted for warmer climate. Where as wild varieties of Artemisia grow to only 5 cm in the tropics, A-3 can reach heights of 3m and contains 20 times more artemisinin. Mbozi says ICRAF is now facilitating the broad propagation of A-3 by teaching thousands of farmers in
its extensive network how to cultivate Artemisia from stem cuttings.

The programme has extended to four districts in Tete Province-Angonia, Moatise, Tsangano and Makanga-located in North Western Mozambique - and is soon expected to extend to Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the other countries where ICRAF Southern Africa Programme is working.

In Zimbabwe vegetative reproduction of the Artemisia commenced in October 2004 at Domboshaba Research Station with a single plant from which 200 stem cuttings were planted on-station.

"The cuttings have further multiplied through vegetative propagation and the plant is responding very well to the Zimbabwean weather conditions," says Dorah Mwenye of ICRAF-Zimbabwe. Ms Mwenye says a number of rural families will soon receive cuttings of Artemisia for multiplication and use at household level.

Thousands of Artemisia plants can be propagated from a single stem cutting. This makes for a lot of cheap and effective medicine. The daily adult dose of anti-malaria tea requires mixing just 5g of dried A-3 leaves in 1L of water. This tincture is split into
four parts and taken once every six hours. This is repeated for seven days. Given that each plant yields 200g dry weight, 1000 shrubs can cure malaria in 5700 adults.

Artemisia treatments for malaria create big savings at the pharmacy for cash-strapped farmers. Money spent on malaria medication can be spent elsewhere. There
is also an untapped potential for getting much-needed income from selling Artemisia medicines.

Anamed- Angonia in cooperation with ICRAF, Medicins sans Frontiers (MSF) and the Mozambique Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADER) are training
farmers how to process and manufacture Artemisia medicines.Harvesting and air-drying the leaves, as well as the production of medicines, is a straight forward, non-labour intensive project. Even after three years, dried leaves retain practically 100 percent of their artemisinin content, suggesting that under proper conditions Artemisia medicines can be stored for a long time.

When asked about the scale of Artemisia farming in Southern Africa, Dr Patrick Matakala, Regional Coordinator of ICRAF Southern Africa, replies: "I wouldn't call it large scale production for profit yet, but that is where we are heading as a programme."

Nonetheless, for the ambitious farmers there is a definite possibility of scaling up Artemisia production for sale to pharmaceutical companies in the future. There will certainly be a market. WHO estimates that of the 40 countries-20 in Africa-using
Artemisinin-based drugs, five are expected to have shortages due to lack of raw plant extracts. This includes most of the countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region. However, scaling up for pharmaceuticals will require resolving a few proprietary issues surrounding A-3, the rights to which are controlled by an undisclosed pharmaceutical player.

Meanwhile, various organizations around the world celebrated the successes of Partnerships as they commemorated Africa Malaria Day 2005. Under the theme "Unite Against Malaria", celebrations focussed on the importance of partnership at the
national, regional and global levels for fighting malaria.

"Working with partners has allowed Zambia to make great strides in the fight against malaria, which include exceeding our 2005 target for providing malaria prevention for children under five," said Zambian Health Minister Dr Brian Chituwo, during this
year's main regional Africa Malaria Day event.

The Zambian government's roll Back Malaria Initiative intends to achieve reduced deaths due to malaria by 50 per cent, by the year 2010.

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