Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Veterinary Practice News
While the One Health movement may be making headway toward its goals of improving health care, it may also be overlooking a significant sector of medical practitioners and eco-health considerations. In order to truly embrace the whole, the initiative needs to remedy this.
The One Health website, onehealthinitiative.com, lists vision and mission statements that sound progressive, expansive and all encompassing.1 The vision defines seven ways to improve the lives of all species, human and animal, by integrating human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental science.
It outlines that to achieve this goal, those involved will seek to influence medical education, political leaders, disease surveillance, the study of zoonotic transmission, and the delivery of modern medical approaches worldwide.
The recent Ebola outbreak in Africa—which just reached the U.S. as we went to press—drives home the timeliness and significance of such an approach.2 Indeed, situations such as this call for interdisciplinary, international and highly coordinated efforts in a holistic approach to emerging diseases.3
And yet, at the same time, this effort fails to mention the most widely practiced form of health care in developing nations, i.e., native healing practices and integrative medicine.
This metaphorical elephant in the living room has much to offer once she’s invited to sit at the table and participate in discussions.
Real elephants, as well as many other species of animals, also use their own self-healing practices, based on what appears to be an innate knowledge about medicinal plants and how to use them. This phenomenon, called “zoopharmacognosy,” or animal self-medication in the wild, has informed human use of plants in the wild since prehistoric times.4
This is where One Health has existed for eons.
Forests, in particular, serve as vital repositories for medicinal botanicals.5 Alkaloids including reserpine, quinine, caffeine, ephedrine, ipecac, nicotine and cocaine originate in the forest, as do antibacterial and antifertility compounds.
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), for example, contains pharmacologically active constituents with contraceptive, steroidal and muscle-relaxant properties. Quinine and artemisinin fight malaria, digitalis helps treat heart failure, and taxol, vinblastine, and etoposide have anticancer attributes.
Biologists have documented how wild animals have sought certain plants, purportedly for their healing properties, and then noted how the local human inhabitants employ those same plants in a similar manner. African elephants, for example, may course long distances to locate and consume portions of trees from the Boraginaceae family to treat dystocia.6 Women of certain Kenyan ethnicities have used the same plant type groups to induce labor and abortion.
Herbal attributes for humans and animals appear to originate as protective or defensive biochemistry that benefits the plants themselves.
Bitter alkaloids, for example, confer a competitive advantage to plants producing them by repelling grazing herbivores.7 While a limited amount of bioactive botanical compounds may be beneficial to an animal, too much can become toxic. To illustrate this point, one sees how curare on the tip of a dart, derived from a South American vine (Chondodendron tomentosum) can kill a living target while d-tubocurarine has been used clinically as a cardiac relaxant during open-heart surgery as well as a treatment for the spastic paralysis seen in tetanus cases.
What modern medicine, both human and veterinary, can contribute to ethnomedical and ethnoveterinary approaches is its rigorous testing of the risks and benefits of plant-based healing compounds.
Ethnomedical enthusiasts of folkloric practices have made much of traditional medicinal methods in terms of cultural practices and methods of preparation. Nevertheless, the romantic notions of a native shaman performing miraculous healings should not overshadow the need to critically evaluate claims.
Indigenous practitioners typically intermix religious or spiritual rituals in their healing process; this admixture becomes difficult to disentangle. As a case in point, even today we see overtones of quasi-religious ideology inseparable from traditional Chinese medical (TCM), an extant method of healing described as “simultaneously medical, psychotherapeutic, and religious.”8
In places such as Africa, several estimates suggest that native healers provide nearly all of the primary health care,9 sometimes with a high degree of suspicion for science and scientists. For the deadly Ebola virus, some traditional healers claimed to have a cure; others said they could not cure Ebola but were successful at treating smallpox and measles, though no proof has come forth as yet.10
Nonetheless, in Sierra Leone, “The Ebola crisis began with just one healer’s claims to special powers,” contributing to the possibly preventable deaths of 365 people.11
Special powers notwithstanding, there may as yet be help from the plant kingdom for Ebola, as in the case of a compound from the Garcinia kola (bitter kola) plant.12 The bitter kola plant contains a diverse spectrum of bioactive components including anthraquinones, cardiac glycosides, tannins, saponins and alkaloids.
Other herbal preparations may also aid in the control or treatment of Ebola virus as well as Dengue fever, leishmaniasis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome and more.13 Plants may even provide a novel approach for tackling antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”14 as well as in the formulation of vaccines for viruses such as Ebola.15
People and animals around the globe will continue to rely on plant-based medicines at least until these resources disappear. The bulk of health care delivery in developing countries will continue to depend on native practitioners and natural therapies for the foreseeable future.
It is time for One Health researchers and practitioners to broaden their focus and include integrative medicine in its native and modern forms within its scope and vision.
In the words of a leading zoopharmacognosy researcher over a decade ago, “[A] multidisciplinary approach to research, in which biological activity of novel plant-derived compounds acquired from the study of animal behavior and ethnomedicine are assessed against a wide range of hosts, maximizes the chance of success.
“Contributions from multiple disciplines and cultural traditions to the study of animal self-medication and ethnopharmacology can bring about a rich understanding of the value of [indigenous] cultural and biological diversity for the future of its population, as well as science in general.
“An ultimate objective of this research is to integrate our results into local health care and livestock management systems so that locally available plants can be properly used to the benefit of all.”
Sure sounds like One Health.
1. One Health Initiative website. Mission and vision statements. Accessed at http://www.onehealthinitiative.com/mission.php on 09-13-14.
2. Kahn RE, Clouser DF, and Richt JA. Emerging infections: a tribute to the One Medicine, One Health concept. Zoonoses Public Health. 2009;56:407-428.
3. Kahn RE, Clouser DF, and Richt JA. Emerging infections: a tribute to the One Medicine, One Health concept. Zoonoses Public Health. 2009;56:407-428.
4. Huffman MA. Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2003;62:371-381.
5. Colfer CJP, Sheil D, and Kishi M. Forests and Human Health. Assessing the Evidence. CIFOR Occasional Paper No. 45. Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2006.
6. Huffman MA. Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2003;62:371-381.
7. Colfer CJP, Sheil D, and Kishi M. Forests and Human Health. Assessing the Evidence. CIFOR Occasional Paper No. 45. Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2006.
8. Barnes LL. The psychologizing of Chinese healing practices in the United States. Cult Med Psychiatry. 1998;22(4):413-443.
9. Colfer CJP, Sheil D, and Kishi M. Forests and Human Health. Assessing the Evidence. CIFOR Occasional Paper No. 45. Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2006.
10. Ogwuda A. We cannot cure Ebola disease, by Akumazi traditional healers. Vanguard. September 8, 2014. Accessed at http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/09/cure-ebola-disease-akumazi-traditional-healers/ on 09-13-14.
11. Taggart F. Sierra Leone’s 365 Ebola deaths traced back to one healer. Yahoo! News. Accessed at http://news.yahoo.com/sierra-leones-365-ebola-deaths-traced-back-one-065404276.html on 09-13-14.
12. Anonymous. Ebola cure hope. BBC News. August 5, 1999. Accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/411030.stm on 09-13-14.
13. Muanya C. Panel probes herbal cure claims for Ebola virus, others. The Guardian. August 7, 2014. Accessed at http://ngrguardiannews.com/sunday-magazine/living-wellbeing/173979-panel-probes-herbal-cure-claims-for-ebola-virus-others on 09-14-14.
14. Robinson N. Superbugs: Can plants save us? Veterinary Practice News. August 9, 2013. Accessed at http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/Medicine/Superbugs-Can-Plants-Save-Us/ on 09-14-14.
15. Heffron K. Plant-derived pharmaceuticals for the developing world. Biotechnol J. 2013; 8:1193-1202.