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A new study published by scientists at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) reveals that some of the herbal mixtures already in the market today may be dangerous to our health. The scientists: Relebohile Mautsoe, Taelo Noko and Oriel Hlokoane, from the Department of Pharmacy, took five herbal mixtures in Maseru and analysed them. While the mixtures passed certain conditions, they also contained some very dangerous germs (bacteria). Some of the mixtures did not meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits on fungi, bacteria and heavy metals content.

To set matters straight, the scientists are not saying Basotho should not produce herbal mixtures, the practice they have carried for centuries. “In fact we believe that herbal mixtures can work against certain diseases and science does prove it,” said Relebohile Mautsoe who is leading the study. “Rather, these mixtures, especially those that are sold to the public, should first be tested in our view.” The findings of this study have been published in the International Journal of Pharmacy and Chemistry.

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Recently, some Basotho have started commercialising traditional herbal remedies. That is a good development but it comes with risks. “There is a possibility that these mixtures contain contaminants because of the casual manner in which they are prepared,” said one of the scientists involved in the study, Oriel Hlokoane.

So they purchased five herbal mixtures in Maseru. They were randomly selected so that there was no preference for one mixture over another. The names of the mixtures we never revealed in the journal, and they will not be revealed to the public for ethical reasons. The mixtures were subjected to tests and here is what they found:

Bacterial contamination: All the five mixtures were tested for presence of the following harmful bacteria: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumonia. All the mixtures contained only the first bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and none of the others. The presence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa is worrying for several reasons. Whereas these bacteria can cause several problems, one of the most problematic is pneumonia.

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“To highlight why this can be a headache,” Mautsoe said, “consider that these mixtures are consumed more in times of Covid-19. Now, think of a situation where you are fighting Covid-19, a disease that is best known for causing lung problems, while you are potentially adding another microbe which complicates the breathing process.”

He said they had no clue why the mixtures had these specific bacteria but it could be due to unhygienic conditions in which they were possibly produced.

Interestingly, the scientists subjected those bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to two drugs that are often used to treat diseases caused by it. “We used ciprofloxacin and ceftriaxone,” and the good news is that they worked against the bacteria.

Fungal contamination: all of the five mixtures had fungal contamination beyond the WHO limits. It would have been nice to identify what kind of fungi those were but the equipment limitations did not allow. Although they could not identify the fungi, they, however, used a drug, nystatin, that is normally used to treat fungal diseases.

The drug didn’t work against the fungi.

“There are two possible reasons why it didn’t work” Mautsoe said. “First it could be that the drug used (nystatin) was not suitable for these unknown fungi or the fungi were resistant to the drug. The second possibility would not be good news at all.”

“We also tested the content of what we call “aerobic bacteria” and we found that three samples were beyond the WHO limits.”

Heavy metals contamination: In the short term, heavy metals gathering in your body can cause problems with your kidney, liver and lungs. In the long term, they can cause such diseases as Parkinson disease (letope) and forgetfulness in older people. Only two of the five samples passed the heavy metals tests.

There are several reasons why the mixtures could contain more of the heavy metals. They include the possibility that the plants got the metals from pesticides. However, a worrying factor identified by previous researchers is that some producers deliberately put some heavy metals such as mercury (sekete), a very dangerous substance, in the mixtures, with an honest belief that they have medical benefits.

pH, Chlorides: medicinal mixtures are expected to have a pH ranging between 5 to 8 for good mouth health. Two of the five mixtures had a pH well below 5. All the five mixtures passed the Chlorides tests as per WHO recommendations.

More relevant tests could have been made if the scientists had enough resources.

They didn’t.

So the scientists make simple recommendations. (1) Lesotho should start investing in testing capacity by assisting NUL with proper equipment, (2) the law should be passed that requires herbal mixtures to be tested before being taken to the public, especially those that are commercial (3) in the absence of a law, those who make the mixtures should be advised to test them before selling them, at least to ensure that they meet basic tests like those discussed in this story.

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