By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Although Nigeria’s first recorded death from Ebola happened only in July, there’s already a lengthening list of Nigerian medical science and pharmacology professors who have persuaded the news media into believing that they are “experts” who have found herbal cures for the disease.
The first professor who made headlines over claims of finding a herbal cure for Ebola is Professor Maurice Iwu, former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. He initially told the news media that laboratory tests he conducted in America showed that bitter kola (or is it kola nuts?) could cure patients afflicted by the Ebola virus. “This is a very exciting discovery,” he said. “The same forest that yields the dreaded Ebola virus could be a source of the cure.”
But in an interview with Channels TV, following a blistering attack on his claims by Sahara Reporters , Iwu scaled back the magnitude of the efficacy he ascribed to his herbal “remedy.” He now claims that bitter kola only “arrests the replication of the Ebola virus,” not cure it. But the initial claim that bitter kola cures Ebola has already caused many Nigerians to stockpile the herb.
Then came a Professor Sunday Aremu Omilabu, described by Sahara Reporters as a “Consultant Virologist and Ebola expert” at the University of Lagos’ College of Medicine. Omilabu hasn’t (yet) claimed to have found a cure for Ebola, but he told Sahara Reporters that “Ebola virus particles can be transmitted by air” in spite of claims to the contrary in the broader medical community. His claims are obviously not the product of any empirical medical research. I searched his name in a comprehensive database of scholarly medical journals and found no article authored or co-authored by him on Ebola. Yet he is an “Ebola expert.”
The latest “Ebola professor” to hypnotize the Nigerian news media with the razzle-dazzle of the putative curative powers of Nigerian herbs is one Professor Adebukola Ositelu. The (Nigerian) Sun reported her to have told participants at a NAFDAC-organized “African Traditional Medicine Day” on September 4 that ewedu (known in English as corchorus or jute and in Hausa as rama) can “prevent and cure” Ebola. “To administer the treatment,” the Sun reported her as saying, “the ewedu should be rinsed thoroughly with liquid vinegar.” She advised the preparer of the herbal concoction to “blend and cook with drinkable water, without adding salt or kaun (potash) or any other ingredients; then take a 25cl or half a tumbler measure once a week, first thing in the morning before any meal for prevention, adding that those already infected should take it every morning for seven to five days.”
Ositelu, mind you, is a professor of ophthalmology, that is, the branch of medicine that studies the eyes. Yet she is giving elaborate “expert” advice on and prescription for the cure of Ebola based purely on hunch. This lady is clearly a “babalawo” professor that doesn’t bother with the pesky protocols of scientific research before broadcasting results. I wonder what business she has being a professor of ophthalmology.
I am sure there are many more professors who have spoken with the news media about having found herbal remedies for Ebola that I have missed. Even more professors may come forward with even more bizarre claims in the future.
Everyone who spares a thought for reversing the scourge of Ebola should be worried by the growing trend of medical and pharmacological professors addressing the media about claims of finding cures for Ebola. It is simply irresponsible. If these people are truly professors in medical science, they should know enough to know that announcement of cures for diseases isn’t done through media interviews. It usually follows established protocols—starting from actual empirical research, to publication of findings in peer-reviewed journals, etc.
Although Iwu’s bitter-kola trial drug is the product of some preliminary research (13 years ago!), it hasn’t been tested on even mice, not to talk of humans. “Even if this particular drug does not succeed through the whole drug approval process, we can use it to construct a new drug for this deadly disease,” Iwu said 13 years ago. Since then, nothing has happened. The drug didn’t to go through the approval process he talked about. Yet, Iwu made it seem like he had just made a new discovery this year.
These people are an embarrassment to the medical and pharmacological professoriate. But, even worse, they are a danger to humanity. Because of the social and cultural capital they wield, the pronouncements of medical and pharmaceutical professors carry a lot of weight, especially in precarious times such as this. One of the consequences of their flippant, unsupported, and probably fraudulent, claims to herbal cures for Ebola is that scores of people may be led to let down their guards and to be lulled into a false sense of invincibility on account of eating ewedu, or bitter kola, or whatever other wacky herbal remedy some other lazy, attention-seeking voodoo professors may come up with.
To be sure, it could very well be that kola, ewedu, and other herbal remedies can indeed cure Ebola, but we can’t know this for sure until an actual empirical study has been conducted and its results published in a medium other scientists respect. When a scientist discovers or suspects he has discovered a cure for a disease, the right thing to do is to test and publish the discovery, not to rush to the press.
I think the Nigerian news media also failed their readers and viewers by giving legitimacy to the uncorroborated, self-indulgent blusters of these glamorized babalawo priests masquerading as professors. Scientific news, especially news of medical feats, is never reported solely on the unverified claims of a lone scientist.