Medicinal herb clinics in Yemen: medicine or quackery?

Published on 9 April 2012 in Health & Environment
Ahmed Dawood (author)

Ahmed Dawood

The Ministry of Health doesn’t regulate herbal clinic industry. Officials said that the Ministry doesn’t have the authority yet to do so.

The Ministry of Health doesn’t regulate herbal clinic industry. Officials said that the Ministry doesn’t have the authority yet to do so.

Along Taiz Street and in the neighborhood of Shumaila in Sana’a, herbal therapy clinics and pharmacies are spreading.

Near Sundus pharmacy, licensed by the Ministry of Health, there's another pharmacy selling herbal medicines. Mr. Abdullah Al-Nahari, owner of the herbal pharmacy, says that his store has remedies for many ailments. However, he admits that he does not have a license from the Ministry of Health.

At his Shifa'ee (meaning "My Cure") herb shop in Shumaila, Al-Nahari says that his medicines are prepared in a private lab belonging to an herbalist called Yahia Mohammed al-Shuraihi. Al-Nahari, however, says he doesn't know how they are prepared.

As an herbal pharmacist, Al-Nahari says that he asks people seeking medical herbs to get tested in standard medical labs. Based on the results from the tests, he gives them the appropriate herbal remedy.

On the shelves of Al-Nahari's herb store, there are some 73 medicinal items stored in small jars. According to Al-Nahari, the patient is given a jar of the medicine along with the user instructions. "Patients need a rather long time to heal," says he, "which can take up to three months."

The herb store also sells various kinds of honey. According to Al-Nahari, they can be administered to heal different diseases. Dawani honey (named after its place of origin, the Dawan Valley in Hadramout), retrieved from honeycombs on the sumor tree, is good for the liver. Sidr honey heals chest inflammations and asthma, and Salam honey is the proper cure for kidney disease. Honey mixtures vary in price; some are sold for YR2000, and others for as much as YR6000.

Al-Nahari insists that should the herbs prescribed not be helpful, they won't be harmful either. He says that many people who bought herbal remedies from his store are now well. He claims that his pharmacy has medicines for the liver, teeth, tonsils, kidneys, chest inflammation, diabetes and hemorrhoids, among others.  

Abu Amar, owner of Taiba, another herbal pharmacy in Shumaila, does not hold a university degree and never attended medical school. He says that he's developing expertise through experience and hands-on practice. "I've been working in this field for eighteen years. Herbal medicines are natural plants, so if they don't help the patient, they can't harm the patient either," he declares.

He explains that after herbs are collercted from all around the country, they are preserved, dried properly and stored so that they’re fit for administration and are rid of damaging side-effects.

Back to the roots

Herbal therapists in Yemen believe that by using medicinal plants for remedies, they are adopting the healing practices of ancient civilizations which were applied by pioneer physicians such as Ibn Sina, Al-Razi and others.

"Since the very beginning of humanity," says Mr. Mohammed Abdul Hameed Al-Dhamin, one of the best known herbalists in Yemen, "medicines have been extracted from herbs, and when people come to these [herbal] dispensaries, they come to the origin of medicine."

Nevertheless, he believes there should be conditions for anyone practicing herbal medicine. "The herbal doctor should have sufficient experience, and conduct scientific research and experiments in order to perform his medical duties. He also must have a special lab where he extracts herbal medicines through modern scientific means."  

He continues by saying that his Yemen-UAE Hikma House is the exception in the industry, because it is the only herbal pharmacy that has obtained a license to operate from the Yemeni Ministry of Health. "The House has provided many herb-related medical services, especially using rare herbs. We have treated countless illnesses, including 3,000 infertility cases," says Al-Dhamin.

Incompetence in the industry

Dr. Taher Idhah, kidney and urinary passages specialist, says that herbalists in Yemen work by way of half-baked methods. "An herbalist isn't a doctor or a pharmacist," he asserts, "but they control this field, using people's ignorance to rob their money."

On the other hand, Dr. Ma'amoun Al-Dalai, a dentist, believes that treatment with herbs is a trusted, time-honored practice. "Herbs are the essence of medicines and most medicines are extracted originally from natural herbs," he explains, adding that the whole process must be performed according to standards and stringent criteria, as the healing herbs themselves can contain harmful ingredients.

"This field of medicine should be restricted to people who have adequate knowledge and experience in it. However, in Yemen, we see unprofessional practices dominating this field. Many of the practitioners make use of people's inexperience and unawareness of the risks of herbal mixtures. We're also noticing that these herbalists distribute their brochures and advertisements in low-education areas," says Al-Dalai.    

Dr. Hameed Muthaffar Ubaid, chest and abdominal diseases specialist, agrees with the above statements, adding, "Treatment with herbs may be beneficial if practiced in an orderly manner based on scientific study and using accurate and approved doses. What's appalling here is that in Yemen this work is done incompetently, in a way that can damage patients' health instead of maintaining it."

Fears and damages

Dr. Ubaid says that herbs can ignite allergies in some people. Such allergies may appear at the first use of the medicine or after several uses. Some allergy symptoms include swelling, rashes and difficulty breathing.

"Herbs can be very harmful to humans," goes on Ubaid, "since they can hurt both the liver and kidney, and the patient may suffer from kidney failure due to poisoning or overdose."

Al-Dalai says, that misapplication of herbal medicines can lead to health complications and, at times, can result in death.

"There's no medicine without side effects or complications," says Dr. Taher Idhah.

"Thus along with any medicine, be it chemical or herbal, we find a label that gives accurate information on the product,” he said.

“As for the herbal preparations made in our country, neither we as doctors and pharmacists nor the patients know their exact composition or the people who made them.” Idhah said.

 He explained that existing herbal medicines in Yemen are not made according to scientific methods, nor have hygiene, sterilization or proper preservation been adopted.

“Thus, as specialized doctors, we cannot advise any patients to take these drugs for the reasons above,” said Idhah.  

Helpless ministry

In the face of such risks, the Ministry of Health should be the sole body to regulate this profession, but it stands powerless and unable to take action.

Many herbal remedies in Yemen aren’t made according to medical criteria.

Many herbal remedies in Yemen aren’t made according to medical criteria.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Hammadi, director of private medical establishments at the Ministry of Health, says that the Ministry never interferes when it comes to herbal clinics or pharmacies, nor does it follow up with them or have the authority to ban drugs or close the pharmacies down.

He adds, frustrated, "The ministry bears the ethical responsibility concerning this issue, since what's happening is putting people's lives at stake, and I hold the government responsible for not drafting a law that regulates this business."