The Artemisia annua plant can be found growing wild on mountain ranges in China and carefully maintained in ornamental gardens in Europe. But in recent years, it has also been cultivated in fields in parts of Africa. That’s because the fern-like leaves of the Artemisia annua plant hold a powerful tool in the fight against malaria.
Artemisia annum, also known as sweet wormwood, or simply artemisia, contains the medicinal ingredient artemisinin. It is the key ingredient in Artemisinin Combination Therapy, which is recommended by the World Health Organization for the treatment of malaria. Many people, including some medical professionals and malaria researchers, also believe that a tea prepared from artemisia leaves is an effective malaria treatment.
The growing demand for artemisia has led many small-scale African farmers to experiment with the crop. Some sell leaves to pharmaceutical companies that extract artemisinin for use in anti-malarial drugs. Others grow the plants for use in local health centres.
John Tabaro is one of 12,000 farmers who now grow artemisia is the Kabale District of Uganda. A company called Alfo Alpine Pharma Limited provides him with seedlings, which he cultivates to maturity. The company then purchases the leaves.
Mr. Tabaro was initially pleased with this arrangement. He made more money with artemisia than he ever had with sorghum, and for the first time he could afford to send his children to school. But lately, Alfo Alpine has slowed its buying. Mr. Tabaro says he’d like to plant more artemesia, but the company has not yet purchased his latest harvest.
While growers such as Mr. Tabaro may have to cut back their production, an international NGO called Action for Natural Medicine, or Anamed, is working to connect small-scale artemesia growers directly with malaria patients. They believe that artemisia tea is an important alternative medicine to treat malaria – especially for those who cannot afford Artemisinin Combination Therapy at a cost of up to 2.5 American dollars, or 1.5 Euros, for a full adult course of treatment.
Brother Elias Pereira de Macedo used seeds provided by Anamed to begin an artemesia nursery behind his church in Vila Ulongue, Mozambique. The leaves he produces are used in nine mobile health clinics in the surrounding area. Malaria patients take a prescribed amount of artemesia tea, prepared to exact specifications.
Anamed is now working with the World Agroforestry Centre, Doctors Without Borders, and the Mozambique Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to train farmers to process and manufacture artemisia medicines.