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Africa's herbal answer to Viagra

Sao Tome and Principe's traditional healers have vital knowledge of natural drugs.

SAN ANTONIO, Principe — Viagra is not needed on this island. For erectile dysfunction, herbal healers prescribe a bit of bark to heat until soft, chew and spit out.

The reddish-brown bark from the pausinystalia yohimba, a tree that grows in the closed canopy forests of the Gulf of Guinea, contains a powerful alkaloid (yohimbe) that increases blood flow to the pelvic area. In other words, it has the same effect as Viagra.

This is just one example of the bona fide medicinal value of the rich herbs and vegetation of the West African islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Hypertension, high blood pressure or sprained ankle? The herbal healers have potions to treat them. And new studies are proving that the traditional remedies have scientific medicinal value.

From the air, the islands appear as emerald jewels floating on the blue Atlantic Ocean. Green, dense primal rainforest covers these tiny volcanic islands off the coast of Gabon in West Africa. On the ground in Principe, a small man weaves his way through the lush forest. Here and there he stops, whispers words, almost a chant, collects leaves, scrapes bark, or digs up a root.

“Each plant has a spirit. I speak to them. I explain that I come in good faith, to heal, not to do evil,” he says.

Cosme Quaresma Costa, 63, is an stlijon, or traditional healer, in the island's local creole (crioulo) language. For a living, Costa drives a truck for a building company. For healing, the forest is his pharmacy, and medicinal barks, his expertise.

Stlijons are specialized — herbalists, bush surgeons, masseurs, urine analysts, dream interpreters, ventosas, birth attendants or diviners. They treat all kinds of ailments with herbal medicines.

For high blood pressure, the root of rauwolfia vomitoria has been a staple in the African pharmacy for centuries. It contains reserpine, a naturally occurring drug identified in 1952 that became the first modern medicine to treat hypertension.

But the empirical knowledge of stlijons is disappearing as fast as the tropical forest. Many are elderly and have few students.

“These healers hold generations of accumulated knowledge and practice,” said Maria do Ceu Madureira, a professor of pharmacology at the Egas Moniz Higher Institute for Health Science in Portugal.

For the last 15 years, Madureira and a team of pharmacists and biologists worked with 40 respected healers and midwives on Sao Tome and Principe. They noted 1,000 recipes for herbal medicines, identified and classified 325 medicinal plants, and reviewed the existing literature.

In Portugal, lab tests were conducted on 50 plants. Sixteen look promising against ailments ranging from hypertension, arterioescleroris and colon cancer to malaria. Many have proven effects as sedatives and analgesics, others have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-histaminic properties.