Drinking a mixture made from a plant popularly known as ewedu, or kren-kren, can protect people against the Ebola virus, Nigeria’s leading Guardian and Nation newspapers have reported.
The sensational articles were accompanied by equally sensational headlines. “How I discovered ewedu cure for Ebola,” read one. “Ewedu can cure, prevent Ebola,” read the other. The source of the claims was a professor in ophthalmology at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital named Adebukola Adefule-Ositelu.
“The qualities inside ewedu is so much that it will kill Ebola by preventing the virus from replicating and destroying more organs in the body… [u]ltimately, leading to the cure,” The Nation quoted her saying.
“The remedy,” she added, is to take some ewedu, “rinse and wash it with liquid vinegar, then blend it and cook with only drinkable water for five minutes. First thing in the morning, freshly made, just take 25cl of the herb in an empty stomach once a week for prevention.”
So is there any evidence to suggest that ewedu offers a remedy for Ebola, or is this just one of the many unsubstantiated claims that are capitalising on fear of the virus and raising false hopes in those afflicted?
What is ewedu and does it have medicinal qualities?
Ewedu is a flowering herb and the leaves are eaten throughout most of West Africa in sauces and soups. The plant, whose Latin name is corchorus olitorius, is also known as kren-kren. Its leaves have traditionally long been used to treat measles, although the effectiveness of that treatment has not been validated.
So what is the evidence on Ebola?
Is there any proof it contains anything that could help it prevent or treat the Ebola virus? To answer that question, we searched the global research database PUBMED.
Some papers do indeed suggest that extracts of the plant do have some anti-bacterial effects when applied "in vitro" or outside a living organism.
However, the papers made clear the effects when used in a living organism are unknown. And we do not know what impact the digestive system may have on the active ingredients. It was also unclear from published research which part of the plant could have the greatest anti-bacterial effects and at what concentration these effects were best seen.
We also found no evidence of any anti-viral activity whatsoever for extracts of corchorus however it is applied.
What this means is there is no more reason to take an extract of ewedu than there is to mash up any other particular plant and create a concoction from it. And potentially there may be harm.
How can Ebola be treated and is there a cure?
The process of identifying new treatments for any disease usually requires the testing of the proposed drug in vitro, outside a living organism, followed by testing on animals, before trials are carried out on human volunteers to see if the drug is effective and safe.
There are currently several trials of possible treatments and vaccines for Ebola taking place, but, as yet, there is no licensed cure or vaccine, for the disease.
The best known of the experimental drugs is ZMapp, which raised hopes when administered to two infected US aid workers in August. But the treatment is not yet proven to work and on August 13 the maker of the drug said its supplies had been exhausted. The pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline is also developing a vaccine, and in Canada a drug called TKM-Ebola is being investigated.
As things stand, supplies of all experimental treatments are extremely limited. In early September the World Health Organisation held a consultation to expedite clinical trials and speed up the manufacturing of the most promising treatments.
For now, though, hospitals must rely on intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure, and antibiotics to fight any secondary infection. As far as prevention goes, rigorous hygiene, protective clothing, and rapid burial of contaminated bodies are the best means.
Conclusion: Ewedu cure claims distract from real ways to fight Ebola
As the Ebola outbreak continues, the internet, and parts of the media, have been abuzz with claims about possible treatments and vaccines for Ebola.
Africa Check last month published a report exposing false claims that drinking, or even bathing in, warm salty water, or using nano silver would protect against the disease. Several people were reported to have died from drinking excessive amounts of salty water following the reports that salty water would prevent Ebola. The Nigerian government withheld approval for nano-silver because the substance did not meet basic research requirements.
It is irresponsible in the extreme for respected newspapers such as The Guardian and The Nation to report unquestioningly on claims such as those touted by Professor Adefule-Ositelu which, unless or until substantiated, only serve to distract people from the real ways to fight Ebola.
Given the severity of the Ebola outbreak, such claims have the potential to seriously mislead citizens and cause harm.
Ike Anya and Chikwe Ihekweazu are Nigerian doctors and specialists in public health medicine. They co-edit Nigeria Health Watch.
An Africa Check guide: Evaluating health claims, quacks and cures