DD, a 6 week old girl, was rushed to the hospital by her caregivers-parents and grandmother. She had passed more than 8 motions of dark and slimy stool which contained some blood within 12 hours period. Her grandmother had given her herbal concoction about 10 hours prior to the onset of passage of the dark stool. The girl had been a well child but the concoction was given to her with the intention to make her stronger and protected against any infection. Older children and adults in the family had taken similar concoction in the past without any side effect. DD’s experience was strange to her caregivers. On full evaluation, DD had suffered severe internal bleeding in her stomach and small intestine. The girl had blood transfusion in addition to other care and has since been fine. The caregivers had sessions of behavioural change counseling regarding use of herbal concoction.
There is no doubt that Traditional Medicine (use of herbs, etc) had been in practice prior to discovery of Orthodox Medicine. Unlike orthodox medicines, the right doses of traditional herbs are not very specific, likewise, the possible side effects are not always known. Users base their decision on experiences of others and hope that there would be no harm.
Traditional versus Orthodox Medicine
In developing countries, herbal concoctions are popular because they are easily accessible in the neighbourhood. The locally prepared ones are perceived to be ‘cheaper’ than orthodox alternatives. The herbal medicines are also obtained without a need to pay consultation fee. These are a few reasons why it is difficult to discourage their use. Since some orthodox medicines are scientific formulations of the active ingredients in herbs, it is correct to say that a few orthodox medicines are developed from studies on herbs. The difference is that orthodox medicines have been thoroughly analyzed to know their safe doses, toxic effect in the body, any harm they may cause to unborn babies if used by a pregnant woman, et cetera. These facts are not entirely known about herbal concoction; hence the risk of its use must be weighed against the benefit.
Considering the above uncertainty about herbal concoctions, their use in children is of great concern. The following are some peculiarities about children regarding use of medications generally.
- Their organs are not as mature as those of adults.
- Medications are adjusted for their age and/or weight.
- A few cases of unexpected dangerous reactions to medications may occur in them.
- Younger ones are unable to explain themselves, likewise, side effects may go unnoticed.
Having these characteristics of children in mind, it is apt to state that their organs such as liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestine are not mature enough to handle any toxic content that may be present in herbs. The locally made herbs have no formulary with which they are produced. Therefore, it may be impossible to differentiate the safe herbs from the toxic ones.
This write up has not disregarded some beneficial effects of herbal concoction as have been demonstrated in several communities over decades. However, caution is recommended. When ill, orthodox medicine is proposed as first choice. This is because in some cases, severe and sometimes irreversible damage has been recorded with the use of herbal concoctions.
Dr Ademola Orolu is a Consultant Family Physician. He holds the Fellowship of The West African College of Physicians. He is also an Associate Fellow of The National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria. He is in active clinical practice. He is a writer, a patient advocate, and has a passion for health education. He is the chief editor of The Family Doctors. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org