An Ethiopian herbal first-aid kit: An updated proposal
By Fekadu Fullas; RPh, PhD | September 22, 2012

Fekadu Fullas
Fekadu Fullas


This article is a follow-up of a previous write-up which was circulated among limited circles. It is thus updated with the inclusion of feto and damakesse. All in all, a brief synopsis of ten Ethiopian plants is presented.

The late world-renowned pharmacognosist Varro E. Tyler once reflected on herbs that might be included in an herbal first-aid kit, with the former easily originating from backyard gardens, and/or grown on a ledge of a kitchen window. Of course, this scenario may be applicable to the West. He cited plants such as arnica, comfrey [the leaves and roots of several Symphytum species] (for bruises), citronella, lemongrass, Mentha species, etc. (for pest bites; as insect repellents), and aloes (for wound healing). A quick scouring of the Internet reveals that there are many businesses in the United States which sell herbal first-aid kits.

These kits have various contents, but most have herbal products for treating cuts, insect bites, and motion sickness/nausea. While researching the subject further for the current article, this writer came across a mention of an herbal first-aid kit in a chapter in a Proceedings (Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 1991). The particular chapter by Eamonn Brehony had a section on how a "First Aid Box of traditional medicines" for HIV/AIDS patients can be developed and used. The study, conducted in southern Uganda, was prompted by the need to develop a list of medicinal plants, which potentially might alleviate the devastating HIV/AIDS symptoms in that part of Uganda. The herbs to be identified were supposed to relieve diarrhea, fever, skin rashes, itching, headache, etc., associated with the dreadful HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, the paper didn't list the names of medicinal plants that can be used for the said purpose. While the universality of emergency situations, such as cuts, burns, and poisoning is obvious, the contents of a local herbal first-aid kit depend on the range of readily available indigenous plants and the prevailing emergent needs of the community in question at any given time. This article, therefore, attempts to provide a rundown of Ethiopian medicinal plants that can be used to make a typical herbal first-aid kit, along with their uses.

Assembling a Traditional Ethiopian First-Aid Kit

If the Scottish traveler James Bruce in the late 1700's had only had prior knowledge about waginos/abalo (Brucea antidysenterica), he would have loved to include it in a first-aid kit. While traveling in Ethiopia, he was overwhelmed by dysentery that took hold of him. Whereas the other western conventional medications he had had on hand failed him, "the blockbuster" waginos nevertheless finally came to his dramatic rescue. Alas, he was relieved of the dysentery! Later, the plant was named after him, with the epithet "Brucea" standing for his last name, and the other part of the binomial "antidysenterica" indicating the pharmacologic activity of the roots. In the 1970’s, waginos turned out to be one of the “hot” plants that the National Cancer Institute (USA) pursued, while exploring the world flora in search of cancer chemotherapeutic agents from plant sources.

Fast forwarding to a very recent time, an interesting letter was published in the Dec, 2001 issue of the electronic magazine Seleda (Vol III, Issue 4, 2001), which mentioned that volatile oils distilled from local plants such as thyme, myrrh, clove, etc. provided relief to mouth sores in HIV/AIDS patients in Addis Ababa, and that the patients reported satisfactory results from using frankincense and other volatile oils-based skin lotion to alleviate skin itching/irritation symptoms. This approach may be compared to the attempt made in southern Uganda, which was alluded to in the background section.

As an extension of the foregoing, the question then comes up: what would the contents of an Ethiopian herbal first-aid kit look like? First, obviously emergent medical conditions, such as cuts, cold/cough, stomach problems, etc. figure prominently. Secondly, one is compelled to look at the inventory of commonly used Ethiopian medicinal plants to select from, for assembling the kit. Although not exhaustive, nor fully developed, the following plants are proposed for the kit, based on the mentioned considerations.

1. Bah zaf (Eucalyptus spp): The leaves are useful for treating cold symptoms, such as cough and nasal congestion. The volatile oil, released by boiling fresh leaves in water, can directly be inhaled for this purpose. Technology permitting, the volatile oil may also be incorporated in a suitable base, as in VicksVaporub, for ease of use.

2. Damakesse (Ocimum urticifolium or O. lamifolium): This plant is used to treat mitch (a complex set of ill-defined symptoms characterized by rash, fever, muscle spasm and headache), and other febrile conditions.

3. Dingetegna (Taverniera abyssinica): The name of the plant itself indicates sudden illness. The roots may come handy for gastrointestinal pain and fever. Chewing the roots may relieve the pain symptoms, and reduce fever.

4. Eret (Aloe spp): Fresh aloe leaves can be incised, and the jelly oozing out can directly be applied to the skin to treat small burns, minor cuts, and abrasions. The jelly-like substance is known to help healing. It is advisable to use fresh exudate, as it is prone to deterioration on standing.

5. Feto (Lepidium sativam): The ground seeds are used for abdominal problems (colic, dysentery, gastritis and pain). The plant is also used to treat mitch, and topically to reduce swelling and for other skin problems.

6. Gulo zeit (Ricinus communis): The oil obtained from the seeds is useful as a laxative to treat constipation. However, care should be exercised in using castor oil, as the crude product may contain the very potent poison ricin. Industrially purified castor oil is devoid of ricin, and is safe to use.

7. Kerbe (Commiphora spp.; myrrh): Volatile oils distilled from myrrh resin can be used as a mouthwash to treat sores. The product can also be mixed with other volatile oils for this purpose.

8. Kundo berbere (Piper nigrum; black pepper): The seeds can be used for cuts. First, the cut is rinsed off with cold water, followed by application of powdered seeds with slight pressure. This helps stop bleeding, reduces pain, and fights off infection. Alternatively, red pepper (qey berbere) may be used in the same way. Capsaicin, a constituent of Capsicum species, is also known for its analgesic (pain-reducing) effect.

9. Roman (Punica granatum). A solution of the fruit peel and the rinds of the stem can be used for the treatment of diarrhea. As pointed out earlier, the powdered root bark of waginos (B. antidysenterica) can also be taken orally for dysentery, which is usually accompanied by diarrhea.

10. Zingibil (Zingiber officinale): A tea made from the roots of this herb can be used to prevent motion sickness. Nausea and vomiting can also be treated with this preparation. It has also the additional advantage of relieving cough.

            The remedies presented in this write-up for possible inclusion in an Ethiopian traditional first-aid kit are to be taken as a preliminary proposal. The article may raise more questions than it answers. However, it may serve as a starting point for entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, who may wish to be involved in the trade of developing a kit. There are credible scientific and/or ethnomedical literature reports to support the above uses, although standardization and dosing remain hazy issues. When used in reasonable amounts, the plants provide emergency benefits. Finally, as a caveat, it should be borne in mind that in the herbal literature, hyperboles that are not amenable to scientific verification surface from time to time, even in this day and age of evidence-based medicine. In general, all-cure-type claims accorded to single medicinal plants are usually a suspect, despite the possible multiplicity of chemical constituents of a given plant, which may account for alleged uses. Any therapeutic claim must be matched by parallel uses in other communities outside of Ethiopia, and/or be supported by valid scientific studies.

(Disclaimer: The remedies mentioned in this article are not intended to provide total cure, nor to postpone other treatment options; they are only meant to be used for first-aid symptomatic alleviation).

Over the past ten years, the author has written four books on various aspects of Ethiopian traditional medicine. He can be contacted at - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2012