04 October 2006

HIV: African potatoes can harm

A prominent South African HIV/Aids expert has called on researchers to explore the efficacy and safety of traditional medicines.


HIV: African potatoes can harm
A prominent South African HIV/Aids expert has called on researchers to explore the efficacy and safety of traditional medicines.

This would mean that South Africa’s treasure trove of seeds, vegetables, leaves and fruits – including the controversial African potato – can be integrated into conventional medicine.

Speaking at the 21st Biannual Nutrition Congress held in Port Elizabeth last week, Dr Kas Kasongo, well-respected authority on HIV/Aids, shed some light on the value of the African potato recommended by the Minister of Health in the treatment of the disease.

"While some extracts of the African potato, in purified forms, are helpful, some are harmful as it suppresses the bone marrow," he told doctors, dieticians, researchers and nurses. "In some cases this traditional potato has the potential to interfere with certain types of antiretrovirals, lowering the treatment’s effectiveness by up to 80%."

Dr Kasongo is an HIV educator at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the co-ordinator of the HIV Clinician Society in the Metro and tends to HIV patients in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage.

No substitute for ARVs
When dealing with HIV/Aids, there was no substitute for antiretrovirals, he said. It couldn’t cure Aids, but it did slow down the progress of the disease. However, it is not without its side-effects.

“Good nutrition for the patient is essential, but we need more reliable information about traditional medicine's healing powers and nutrition so we can use it with confidence. Patients need their immune systems boosted with supplementation.”

He said that the African potato and other plants, vegetables and herbs have been used as traditional medicine for centuries and that people believe in these remedies. But these same people believe that anything that grows is safe to take as a medicine. This isn't always the case.

"What is needed is proper research into traditional medicine, so that it can bridge the knowledge gap to conventional medicine. One problem now with traditional medicine is that there are no specific guidelines as to choice, safety, efficacy and usage for the protection of the public.

“As 80% of Africa's people culturally prefer traditional medicine as they view it as holistic, personalised, affordable and easily available, we need more reliable information as to its healing powers and nutrition, so it can be used with confidence.”

'Treasure trove of hidden possibilities'
He said South Africa was a treasure trove of hidden possibilities with numerous seeds, leaves, vegetables and fruit to explore.

“We must capitalise on our local knowledge and abundant resources. Already, 25 percent of modern medicine in pharmacies is derived from plants. Europe imports 400000 tons of herbs from Africa and India to make medicine.”

Although there is much good in traditional medicine, “we need to know more so we don’t have unqualified people making false claims.”

The Nutrition Congress was held under the auspices of the Nutrition Society of South Africa and the Association of Dietetics of South Africa. – (Bay Public Relations, October 2006)


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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