The WHO vs. the Tea Doctor (Slate)
ENTEBBE, Uganda—It's a little after 9 a.m. on the Wagagai Flower Farm, and Robert Watsusi pedals a bicycle laden with two 3-gallon jugs of a hot, bitter black tea. As he rounds a corner, workers emerge from football field–size growing houses to imbibe their weekly dose of the elixir they say keeps them free from malaria. “When I see people taking it, I feel happy,” says Watsusi. “It is very good for everyone.”
The tea comes from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), the Chinese plant that is a source for the world's most powerful anti-malarial treatments, which combine artemisinin derivatives with an older class of drugs. It can also be grown in wetter parts of Africa, and a year’s supply costs no more than a few dollars. Although the tea itself has traditionally been used in treatment, not prevention, in China, a randomized controlled trial on this farm showed that workers who drank it regularly reduced their risk of suffering from multiple episodes of malaria by one-third. For a group of people who were once waylaid by this mosquito-borne disease four or more times per year, the tea is a godsend.
Which is why you may be surprised to learn that the World Health Organization and a majority of malaria researchers are adamantly opposed to it. To be fair, there are compelling reasons not to endorse an herbal tea in a fight against a potentially deadly disease. After all, conventional single-molecule drugs are honed through chemistry to be safer, more specific, and more effective than their herbal progenitors. More critically, malaria experts worry that unregulated use of this tea could cause the malaria parasite to develop resistance to artemisinin drugs.
But the tea’s mere existence and its rapid spread challenges the view that conventional pharmaceuticals are the best and only way of managing Africa’s health care problems. After all, experts in the international aid world talk a lot about sustainability, and nothing is more sustainable than a drug grown on a shrub.
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