SINCE the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, many herbal solutions have been recommended for the prevention and treatment of the infection.
However, fact-checks have shown that many of these solutions neither prevent nor treat COVID-19.
Some of the recommended herbal solutions include: consumptions of raw onions and garlic, raw onions mixed with salt, lemon drops and onions, neem leaf (locally known as ‘dongoyaro’ leaf), and Christmas melon (locally known as ‘tagiri’), among others.
In January 2021, while on fieldwork in Ibadan, this reporter encountered a herb seller claiming she had a concoction that could prevent and cure COVID-19. The herb seller at Bode market, a popular herbs market in Ibadan, mentioned tagiri, dongoyaro, cocoa leaf, among other things that she claimed could cure or prevent COVID-19.
“Christmas melon, neem leaf, cocoa leaf, alligator pepper can prevent COVID-19 infection very well. In fact, we had many people who come to buy them daily,” the herbs seller Afobaje Alagbo claimed in the local dialect (Yoruba).
She also narrated how people were constantly coming daily to get these concoctions. She went on to say that the price of herb had gone up.
“Since COVID-19 broke out in Nigeria, the price of Christmas Melon had increased. We used to sell one for N80 ($0.19), but now, one Christmas melon goes for N200 ($0.49),” she said.
When asked about the prescription and how to administer the concoction, Afobaje could not specifically tell the reporter how it could be used. She said in Yoruba: “o depend lori ti eyan ba se mo ise si”, meaning, “it depends on how good one is with herbs.”
Does Christmas Melon have any medicinal importance?
Christmas Melon, a variety of melon family, has its origin from Spain and has been reported in research papers to have medicinal uses, but only to poultry.
According to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) report on Newcastle disease control, Christmas Melon extract could be used to cure the deadly and contagious Newcastle disease (ND) that attacks poultry birds. The ILRI also said Christmas Melon could be used to ward off viral infections in poultry.
No report or research work shows that Christmas Melon can prevent or cure a human viral infection.
Neem leaf as a cure for COVID-19
Another claim in the chain of herbal solutions for COVID-19 is the use of neem leaf to cure the infection and its symptoms. A TweetDeck advance search, which makes it easy to re-run searches that have previously been completed, was used to track the purveyor of this claim on Twitter in Nigeria.
Keying the phrase ‘COVID Nigeria neem leaf’ into the search button, the query result shows that a Twitter user with handle @godsgrace7353 on May 6, 2020, had linked the Madagascar cure COVID-19 with the neem leaf.
“So I saw the Ingredients used to create the Madagascar COVID-19 remedy, and the neem leaf which is called dongoyaro leaf in the native part of Nigeria is also a leaf used to cure malaria! And other illness, there is nothing harmful in giving this remedy a try,” the user had said without evidence to show that the Madagascar cure was effective.
On May 26, 2020, another user with the handle @ksbyworld also spoke of the neem leaf cure for COVID-19. His tweet read: “Nigeria is a country full of cultures and traditions. Irrespective of our government’s attitude to covid-19, either for gain or not; we need to save ourselves and go herbal. SOLUTION TO RECENT PANDEMIC” 1. NEEM LEAF (DOGOYARO) 2. PAWPAW LEAF 3. LIME ORANGE 4. GARLIC.”
To track the origin of the claim before it crossed over to Nigeria, a Google search was conducted on the key phrase ‘neem leaf and COVID-19’ on Facebook, and the claim was originally traced to a March 22 Facebook post by one Justine Yong.
In 2020, Malaysia’s Ministry of Health had clarified that there was no scientific evidence to support the claim that neem leaves could cure or prevent COVID-19. An official infographic released by the ministry stated the claims were ‘myths.’
The Malay-language infographic, translated into English as seen in a report by AFP, said:
“The usage of neem leaves for COVID-19 outbreak
- Traditionally, neem leaves are used for various fever and infections;
Can be used on humans to treat COVID-19 outbreak;
Can stimulate immune cells or the body’s self-defense;
No side effects and safe for usage.
- No clear record on required dosage;
For now, there are only studies on cells (in vitro) and animals (in vivo) that have been carried on the hepatitis C virus, dengue and polio. There is no study on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19;
No studies on the effectiveness on the human’s immune system except study on cells (in-vitro) that focuses on the bacteria and not virus;
Safety data concerning all parts of the plant shows:
Adults: May be safe if taken in a short period of time and in low dosage quantity;
Children: Not safe because can cause seizures, vomiting, coma, loss of consciousness and can cause death;
Pregnant women: Can cause miscarriage.”
Although neem extracts have been known for their anti-bacterial and other effects, there is no evidence or information about neem leaves helping to cure or prevent COVID-19 infection.
Raw onions as a remedy for COVID-19
Prominent among the herbal solutions purportedly recommended is the consumption of raw onions and garlic.
FactCheckHub, the fact-checking arm of The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (The ICIR), debunked the claim in March 2020. As of that time, there was no vaccine for COVID-19. Though the Times of India reported that swallowing onions and garlic could help fight lung infections and reduce cholesterol level in the body, the report has no scientific backing.
In May of this year, another claim that raw onions could cure COVID-19 surfaced again, with salt as a mixture.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which regularly debunks baseless advice about coronavirus treatments, said there was no scientific evidence that eating onion and salt could cure COVID-19.
So far, there is no evidence suggesting herbal remedies such as consuming Christmas melon, neem leaves, onions, garlic, ginger, or lemon effectively prevents or cures COVID-19. The ICIR has debunked many false claims about unsubstantiated preventative methods and treatments for COVID-19.
The only effective treatment for COVID-19 is the vaccine, expert says
The Chairman, National Committee on Infectious Diseases of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) Sanusi Muhammad Bala had said the fear and need for medication at the beginning of the virus outbreak due to incomplete information gave room for lots of speculations.
He noted that the situation caused people to look for any available medication to treat themselves. He further stated that it was necessary to note that most herbal medicines, unlike the orthodox medicines, would not go into pre-clinical trial, which were in phases before release for public use.
‘‘It is mostly concoction by someone who just comes up with it without approval and gives it to people for use. The gap, high morbidity; mortality and high infectious nature of the disease provided a market for many herbal remedies,’’ he said.
According to him, COVID-19 differed from other respiratory diseases which could be cured without taking any treatment. He, however, maintained that the COVID-19 was highly infectious.
‘‘From what we have seen so far, the only effective treatment for COVID-19 is the vaccine. It is safe, effective and the only way to stay safe. We have had ours as health workers, and we are stronger, healthier and more confident to face the pandemic. We are calling on all Nigerians to accept the vaccine like other parts of the world to avoid more lockdowns and restrictions and most importantly, people must avoid uncertified herbal medicines to prevent damages to their kidneys, liver and other vital organs,” he said.
As it stands, vaccines prevent symptomatic and severe effects of COVID-19 by creating an immune response against the SARS-CoV2 virus. Pfizer’s primary efficacy analysis published in November 2020 showed its vaccine was 95 per cent effective against COVID-19. Moderna filed an efficacy of 94. per cent the same month, and AstraZeneca’s results in February 2021 showed 76 per cent effectiveness after the first dose and 82 per cent after the second.
COVID-19 vaccination statistics in Nigeria
The National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), the agency of government saddled with the responsibility of carrying out immunisation and vaccination, said as of June 26, over 2.2 million eligible Nigerians had been vaccinated with the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine while 1.1 million Nigerians vaccinated with the first dose had collected their second dose.
The state-by-state breakdown of the data shows that Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have the highest number of persons vaccinated with their first dose of the vaccine, with almost 350,000 and over 140,000 respectively.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme in partnership with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), and Africa Uncensored.