Artemisia annua WESA Phnom Penh

Keynote speech given at the WESA conference Phnom Penh 3 December 2010.

Artemisia annua is very efficient against tropical diseases and disentery

Climate and cultural behavior have always had a major impact on vector-borne and water-borne diseases. Vectors need specific  temperature ranges. for their development.  In tropical regions climatic conditions provide lush environments in which innumerable hosts of infectious diseases thrive. Rainfall also plays a major role and disease vectors, like mosquitoes, are more abundant during the wet season.

As experts in the field of environmental and health certification (ISO 14000 and OHSAS 18000), we have in our international tasks been confronted by the tremendous burden of tropical diseases and dysentery.  If it is true that bad environmental practices have an impact on health and diseases, the contrary is even more true : diseases and poverty have a disastrous effect on the environment,  on water pollution, on deforestation, on the inappropriate use of energy, on landslides.

Diseases fall into two relatively distinct groups, the well-funded  and  the less well-funded like leishmaniasis, malaria, cholera, dengue, chagas, filariasis, dracunculiasis, amoebiasis, fasciola, trachoma, rabies, buruli ulcer, giardiasis…  Funds currently allocated to neglected diseases are dramatically low compared to the health care costs for more common diseases .These neglected diseases  are major causes of death, disability, social and economic disruption for millions of people. The lost productivity, missed educational opportunities and high health-care costs caused by infectious diseases heavily impact families and communities.

Over 9.5 million people die each year due to infectious diseases – nearly all live in developing countries. Children are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases. Pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria are leading causes of death among children under age 5; cerebral malaria can cause permanent mental impairment.

In partnership with associations in a dozen countries and universities in Africa and South America we have concentrated  our efforts on the fight against malaria and dysentery. Our major sponsors are the ArcelorMittalFoundation and the Rotary Luxembourg Vallées.

Malaria, contrary to many beliefs, has also been a common disease in temperate countries, even in Siberia.  After World War II a major effort was undertaken to eradicate this disease, with dramatic success in most Northern countries ; Sicilia, Spain, Florida, Cuba, Russia, Ontario, Algeria, Greece….

The ideal tool for this was DDT, but abuses in its use lead to concerns  for environmental associations and the product was banned before complete eradication was achieved in poor Southern countries. An overreaction with dramatic consequences because despite hundreds of medical studies trying to demonstrate an eventual  human toxicity of DDT, so far none has been able to document any negative health effects and in Sept 2006 the WHO has lifted the ban on DDT for IRS (indoor residual spraying).  In fact DDT acts on mosquitoes more by its repulsive effect than by its toxicity. IRS is a light of hope for millions of children who dye of malaria.

Although welcoming the utilization of DDT-IRS which can immediately save thousands of lives, we believe that the future lies in herbal products more than in chemical insecticides. The extract of Neem (azadirachta indica) for example has strong repulsive and insecticidal properties.

But beyond the preventive strategies based on bed-nets and insecticides, therapies based on herbal medicine can be very effective and will gain in importance. 70 % of the world population still relies on these. One plant plays a key role in this novel approach: Artemisia annua.  Over the last few years we have accumulated scientific evidence which shows that if tea from this plant is taken during seven days (50 gr in 20 cups) the malaria infection is completely cured with a minor risk of recrudescence.  If taken longer than 7 days it can even reduce gametocytemia and  transmission from man to mosquito. The Chinese know this plant for more than 2000 years and nowhere any sign of resistance to the therapy with this herb has been noticed. Artemisia combined therapy (ACT) pills however have given over the last year alarming signs of resistance. Probably because they lack the synergistic effect of polyphenols present in the dried herb.

In order to better coordinate our efforts we have launched this year BELHERB ( Association for the promotion of herbal medicine).  It relies on the work of a dozen university professors and medical doctors from Belgium and Luxembourg.  Chinese and Indian herbal medicines have made miracles for centuries. With modern spectroscopical tools we want to better understand   their pharmacokinetics.

In our own research work at Luxembourg we discovered  that Artemisia annua tea has a strong sterilizing effect on contaminated water. In fact one cup of tea added to a liter of river water gives perfect drinking water. This effect has been confirmed by several European universities, but also by the universities in Senegal, Central Africa and Colombia.

The University of Antioquia in Colombia confirmed that artemisia annua has good therapeutic properties against leishmaniosis and fasciola hepatica.

The University of Belgrade confirmed that artemisia annua tea has cytotoxicity against selected malignant cell lines: human cervix adenocarcinoma HeLa, human malignant melanoma Fem-x and BG, human myelogenous leukemia K562, human breast adenocarcinoma MDA-MB-361 and human colon carcinoma LS174.

In the field of malaria, the most encourageing results were obtained by our African partners at the universities of Dakar, Bangangte, Bangui and Yaoundé.  Their results are available on request.

We have started plantations in a dozen countries in Africa and South America and reach production levels for the commercialization of phytopharmaceutical products in several of these.

The scientists  of “Belherb” are well aware that additional research work is required to confirm and extend above findings in cooperation with our academic partners in the South. Should all this be confirmed, it would be groundbreaking. Each day 20000 children die of Malaria, Cholera, Diarrhea, Leishmaniosia, …   

In this period of climate changes which have dramatic effects on the health of people in Southern countries, Artemisia annua and other “Chinese” herbs could be a free medicine for them and the end of unspeakable sufferings.  

Dr Pierre Lutgen                                                   

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