Could Artemisia annua, also known as the sweet wormwood plant, be the key to curing malaria? The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a leading biologist who specialises in the plant, a Congolese health practitioner who has used the plant to treat his own family and a woman who has launched her own effort to grow and distribute this plant in a malaria-ridden town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They all swear by its effects and lament the fact that more research isn’t being done on its potential healing powers.

The Artemisia plant is originally from China. People across Asia have been using it for centuries to treat fevers and malaria, a deadly infectious disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes and mostly affects children. According to the World Health Organization, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa.

Young Artemisia plants grow in Luebo in 2015. Photo: Isabelle Jemine

Today, an increasing number of scientists, health practitioners and malaria sufferers are convinced that using the entire Artemisia plant – which they say might be even more effective than just its artemisinin extract – could play a key role in the eradication of malaria. Because Artemisia is easy to grow, its advocates say that using it as a tea is the perfect solution for the African continent, which faces limited access to healthcare and medicine.

In Belgium, an organization called Luebo-sur-Ourthe organises workshops on how to cultivate Artemisia and send packages of seeds to the small town of Luebo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each year, Luebo has hundreds of cases of malaria – sometimes more.

A Belgian organisation called Luebo-sur-Ourthe runs workshops on how to cultivate Artemisia and sends packages of seeds to the small town of Luebo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each year, Luebo registers hundreds of cases of malaria.

“My wife had malaria. I gave her Artemisia and she got better”

Thanks to the Belgian organisation’s work, several residents of Luebo have tested Artemisia tea. Our Observer Jean Tshibinda Kazadi manages a hospital in Luebo called CPC Hospital. Usually, the staff there treats patients with quinine and artesunate-amodiaquine or ASAQ, which are traditional antimalarial medicines. However, Kazadi says that he thinks Artemisia works better than these drugs.

 

Malaria is the most common illness in Luebo and it has ravaged the population. In 2016 alone, we treated 677 people for malaria   550 of them children. I would estimate that, in total, at least 1,500 people go to different health centres in town to be treated for malaria each year. And we know that many others stay home and don’t seek any treatment.

In 2015, my wife fell ill with malaria. It was right after we had received Artemisia from the Belgian organisation. I gave some to my wife and was very satisfied with the results   her fever receded and she healed. The same thing happened with the 10 or so other patients to whom I gave Artemisia. Moreover, these people didn’t have any of the side effects that normal antimalarial drugs provoke, like weakness or vomiting.

“The only problem with the tea is that people aren’t used to its taste. But it’s pretty easy to improve it by adding a bit of sugar,” our Observer says. This image is a screen grab taken from a video by the Ferme de la Providence (Providence Farm) in Benin.

For several weeks people were asking me for Artemisia, but we didn’t manage to grow it properly from the seeds we got. When we manage to start producing it again, we are going to launch a big campaign to raise awareness about it in Luebo so that people learn about this remedy and come get some from us for free.

“[Luebo residents] should be able to grow hundreds of plants with these seeds”

Isabelle Jemine is the secretary of Luebo-sur-Ourthe, a Belgian organisation that works to help residents of the Congolese town of Luebo. She posts photo tutorials on how to grow Artemisia and make it into a medicine on the group’s website and its Facebook page. While she sent seeds from Belgium to Luebo in 2015, she wasn’t able to do so last year because of the extremely volatile security situation in DR Congo.  

 

Jemine shared these photos on her organisation’s Facebook page.

 
I discovered this plant through other organisations working in Congo and I thought that it might be able to help people in Luebo, considering the difficult health situation there. My children and I grew the plant in our garden, dried it out and made it into tea, which we then brought to Luebo.
 
Artemisia plants dry at Jemine’s home in Belgium. She will then grind them into a tea and bring it to Luebo. (Photo posted on August 29 on the association’s Facebook page.)

I have made a lot of trips to Congo and I got malaria three times. The first time, I used conventional medicine. The two other times, I used Artemisia. I healed extremely quickly.

Our friends in Luebo have had trouble growing large enough plants and the current security situation means that we’ve had to put our project on hold. However, any day now, they should be receiving some seeds that were grown in Senegal and, thus, are more adapted to the African climate. They should be able to grow hundreds of plants with these seeds.


A continent-wide movement

All across Africa, people are exploring Artemisia as a possible treatment for malaria. The organisation La Maison de l’artemisia (Artemisia House) has branches in DR Congo, Senegal and in 13 other African countries.


Photos of the most recent Artemisia harvest at Ferme de la Providence in Benin. (Photo courtesy of La Ferme de la Providence)


Across the continent, farmers are learning to cultivate Artemisia and meeting up to swap tips and seeds. The organisation has also started posting videos to reach a wider public.
 

A tutorial made by La Ferme de la Providence in Benin shows all of the difference steps in the cultivation of Artemisia. (Photo courtesy of La Maison de l'Artemisia)
 

The WHO remains cautious

While the World Health Organization does recommend artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACT) as a first-line treatment for malaria, it does not advise the use of the whole Artemisia plant, such as in a tea, for the treatment or prevention of the disease. Professor Pamela Weathers, a professor in biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachussetts, is a specialist in Artemisia annua and artemisinin. She explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team why the WHO is reluctant to recommend the use of Artemisia.
 

The WHO won’t recognise a drug or medicine unless several clinical studies have been carried out and they’ve been published in peer-reviewed science journals. Some studies have been carried out and others are ongoing, but they haven’t yet been published in any of these journals.

The WHO is extremely conservative and will reject any alternative treatment until it has been absolutely proved that it eliminates the [malaria] parasite. The problem is that the WHO doesn’t talk about Artemisia as being a promising alternative, which could motivate more scientists to research it.

Because of this silence, it is also hard to get funding for research into Artemisia. If the WHO encouraged more studies into its use and properties, then perhaps more major foundations might fund research.


Congolese researchers carried out a clinical study in DR Congo on 1,000 patients who were ill with malaria. Of those treated with conventional medicine, 79% were cured. However, 99.5% of those treated with Artemisia were cured. Their results were posted on Malaria World, a hub for different publications on malaria. These scientists plan to publish their research in a peer-reviewed journal soon.
 
Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas