- Used traditionally by the Chinese for 2000 years, Artemisia annua is a plant now attracting very much attention. In fact the World Health Organisation (WHO) has just published a 60-page monograph explaining how to grow and harvest the plant and how to extract its active principles. South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are to start growing the medical plant.
The active principles of artemisia are invaluable for the production of artemisin-based combination treatments (ACTs), which the WHO recommends to combat quinine-resistant malaria. This treatment is needed in all areas of the world affected by this form of the disease, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where 90 percent of the deaths attributable to malaria occur.
Even today, 40 percent of the world's population finds itself exposed to this form of malaria - which shows how great the need for artemisin is.
But historically this plant was only cultivated in China. And China alone could not satisfy growing global requirements for the medical plant. Hence there have been periods of genuine shortages that have alarmed the WHO and national health authorities.
To remedy this, the WHO and certain manufacturers have encouraged artemisia cultivation to be extended to other areas of the world, including South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Some farmers have even recognised the opportunity of growing artemisia as an alternative to tobacco - from a public health point of view this is seen as a brilliant idea.
But these developments have not been without their problems. Artemisia annua requires over 6 months of cultivation, after which the extraction, processing and production of the final product takes a further 2 to 5 months. Any mistake can ruin the harvest or lead to the harvesting of a plant low in active principles. And even then, a poorly coordinated production process can ruin months of effort.
This is why the WHO has just published its "Guidelines on Cultivating Essential Plant Used in Anti-Malaria Medicines". This pamphlet describes in precise detail how to go about growing artemisia, how to plan production of its essential products and put in place all the technical know-how required to extract artemisin from the dried leaves.
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