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History of drug development in Africa

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Drug development is a process in which the newest and the latest drugs are formulated according to the need of the time. These drugs are meant for the most lethal, most prevalent and most common diseases. Drug development is a sequential process and developing a new drug or updating the ones that are already in the market takes a lot of time.

Although Africa was not participating actively in the past in drug development due to their financial crisis and many other reasons such as politics, now this continent is considered as the new frontier in this field. Africa has been playing a remarkable role in drug development and is still one of the leading continents in this regard. Due to the prevalence of a lot of diseases such as cholera, malaria, HIV/AIDS, strokes, and many others, Africa has taken an active part in the newest medicine research.

Drug development in Africa in the past

As it is told above, Africa has not been taking an active part in drug development in the past due to a list of reasons. In the past, African countries were struggling with their own problems so they didn’t give much attention to drug development. These problems still exist in these countries but they are diverting their attention more towards this ever-evolving field.

In the past, medicinal plants were the main sources of drugs for different types of diseases and ailments. They didn’t have access to the drugs from the rest of the world, so they relied mostly on these medicinal plants. Due to their low economy, they couldn’t afford the newest medicines and they didn’t have any option but to consult to the practitioners in their local areas. These practitioners were the most suitable and most affordable options for them. 

Africa didn’t participate in the drug development field due to:

  • Their pre-existing financial problems
  • Political problems
  • Low economy
  • Limited access to resources from the rest of the world
  • Limited or non-existent technology
  • The high cost of the process
  • Low literacy rates

There were a number of plants that have been used as the basic and most accessible options for treatment purposes. These medicinal plants are still in use and many people rely on it. 

Medicinal plants used in Africa

Here is a list of some medicinal plants that were used in the past and are still in use. 

  • Gum Arabic
  • Wormwood
  • Bitter Aloe or Cape Aloe
  • Madagascan Periwinkle
  • Devil’s Claw
  • Bitter Melon
  • Umckaloabo

All of the above and many other medicinal plants have been used and are still in use as traditional medicine for different conditions such malaria, bacterial infections, injuries, HIV/AIDS and many other life-threatening diseases.

Historical references of Africa in drug development

In the last 200 years, the concept of western medicine has taken its flight to the current level. Before this, only the traditional plants and other sources were used as medicine. The medicinal plants that have been used in the past practice were adopted according to the latest requirements and the newest medicine came into existence with the help of those plants. Same happened with African countries too, but the evolution in the medical field came a little late to this continent. Some references of the physicians or medical experts and medical scientists can be found in the literature. Some of these references are provided here.

  • Thomas Winterbottom, Physician to the Colony of Sierra Leone from 1792 to 1796.
  • John Atkins’ description of ‘the sleepy Distemper in Negroes’ in 1721 in his book “The Navy surgeon”
  • Edinburgh Missionary Society founded for the purpose of training medical students for missionary work in 1841 by John Abercrombie
  • The work of white fathers and white sisters in East Africa in 1878 and in 1899 
  • Mary Kingsley published her work in West African Studies in 1899

All of the above researchers and physicians worked really hard for the African community and their well-being but there was still a need of latest and most effective medicines.

Current status of drug development in Africa

It was because of the many epidemics and a lot of persistent diseases that African countries felt the need for the latest technology for drug development. After 1990, the newest technologies were being used by the researchers to develop new drugs for themselves and for the rest of the world. Institutions such as the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine and African academy are leading the frontier and new drugs are being developed in Africa.


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