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South African Traditional Medicines Research Group (SATMERG)

  • was established in 1997

  • is funded by the South African Medical Research Council

  • comprises scientists from the School of Pharmacy at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Medical School at the University of Cape Town.

  • seeks to promote the rational use of indigenous traditional medicines, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Pharmacopoeia Monograph Project.

 Why is the project necessary ?

An estimated 70% of South Africans regularly use traditional medicines, most of which are derived from plant species indigenous to the region. These may be obtained on prescription from a traditional healer, purchased from herb sellers or gathered in the wild for self medicine.

The quantity of medicinally active principals present in these herbal remedies may vary genetically, seasonally, geographically, or according to the mode of preparation (collection, drying and storage). It may also happen that superficially similar but botanically unrelated species are included with the genuine article. 

Who will benefit?

Medicines of variable potency and/or poor batch to batch consistency are unsatisfactory and may be downright dangerous. The goal of the monograph project is to protect those who have an interest in traditional medicines (patient, prescribe, pharmacist, manufacturer, health authority, medicine regulatory body) against medicines of poor quality. The project seeks to do this by setting, for selected traditional medicines, standards which define their identity, purity and potency. This approach to formalizing the use of traditional medicines in primary health care has been endorsed by the WHO and is compatible with the aims of the WHO collaborating Centre for Drug Policy which was established in the Western Cape in 1995 as a shared venture of UWC's Pharmacy Scholl and UCT Medical School.

What is a monograph?

The establishing of a set of standards which together define the identity, purity and potency of a particular medicine, is common practice. Such information constitutes a monograph for the medicine. A collection of monographs is the basis for a pharmacopoeia - a hand book of the medicines information that has been given official status by a country or a group of countries and which is regularly updated to reflect current usage. In South Africa, which for historical reasons has never had its own pharmacopoeia, the pharmaceutical and medical professions use the British Pharmacopoeia (BP), supplemented by the Pharmacopoeias of Europe and the United States of America. These works comprise monographs for the medicines currently in common use in Western allopathic systems, about 70% of which are synthetic and the remaining 30% derived from natural products.

What monographs are available for indigenous traditional medicines?

Only two South African traditional medicines have ever been the subject of BP monographs, in contrast to the any European, American and Asian traditional remedies that were included in earlier editions of the BP and the number (e.g. Belladonna Leaf, Liquorice Root and Cloves) that are listed in the current edition. The African Pharmacopoeia, commissioned in 1948 by the Organisation of African Unity for the purpose of recognizing the central role of traditional medicines in the health care systems of African countries, includes very few monographs dealing with South African plant species. The WHO, through its Essential Medicines Programme, is in the process of compiling a World Pharmacopoeia of widely-used traditional herbal medicines, but the vast majority of monographs prepared to date deal with non-African plant species. the present project aims to make good the deficit by drawing up, for the first time, monographs for 100 plant species in common use as traditional medicines in South Africa.

How will the monograph project achieve its aim?

An initial species list has been compiled on the basis of suitability for the treatment of common, self-limiting ailment, unlikely toxicity and ready availability. The developing of monographs for these species is familiar territory to the pharmacist, whose training encompasses the discipline of pharmacognosy (the study of natural-product medicines). The laboratories at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) are equipped to carry out the procedures basic to monographing which are well-documented and span botany, chemistry, microbiology and pharmacology.

Who are the project participants?

The project is housed in the School of Pharmacy and staffed by two full-time scientists. Collaboration with the Departments of Botany, Chemistry and Microbiology at UWC and the Peninsula Technikon has boosted project progress in terms of invaluable assistance as well as opportunity for student participation. Much of the authenticated plant material required by the project has been provided by the horticultural staff of the National Botanic Institute's gardens at Kirstenbosch, Betty's Bay and Worcester. Additional material has been made available by the Curators of the Cape Flats Nature Reserve (UWC), The West Coast National Park, the Tygerberg and Durbanville Nature Reserves and the Montagu Museum Garden.

The product?

    Phase 1 (mid-2000): 100 monographs

    Phase 2 (mid-2001): an additional 100 monographs in a format suitable for publication as a South African Herbal Medicines Pharmacopoeia.

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