Controllng Bilharzia with Berries

Do members of your community have Schistosomiasis, a disease commonly known as bilharzia? This serious tropical disease is caused by a parasite that lives for part of its life cycle in an aquatic snail. People who come into contact with water where infected snails live may contract the disease.

In 1961 an Ethiopian scientist, Dr. Aklilu Lemma, discovered a potent moluscicide which kills the snails that carry the disease. Dr. Lemma made the discovery when he encountered only dead snails downstream from where women were washing clothes with suds made from the berries of the "soapberry" bush. The "soapberry" was endod, (Phytolacca dodecandra ), a plant of the pokeweed family. Endod is native to the highlands of Ethiopia, but is also found in East and West Africa.

A five year study on the effect of endod berry extract revealed promising results. Dr. Lemma released controlled amounts of endod berry extract in the rivers near the Ethiopian community of Adwa, and measured the amount of bilharzia infection in the community. Before the introduction of endod, he found about that 50 percent of the children between the ages of one and five years were infected by bilharzia. Five years later, that figure had been reduced to about 8 percent. Endod berry extract may also be able to control river blindness and malaria since it also kills larvae of the black fly and mosquito. In modest concentrations, the endod toxin is not harmful to humans or fish.

Research and Application

Research is being conducted on endod varieties to adapt them to various soil and climatic conditions. The Pathogenic Biological Institute of Addis Ababa University, for instance has analyzed 30-40 strains of one endod species. Dr. Legesse Wolde-Yohannes, an Ethiopian biologist, has screened varieties of endod plants for 16 years, and has coordinated the development of a high-yielding variety which is resistant to insect pests. This variety has high-potency berries and grow to a size suitable for large-scale cultivation. Cultivars of the high-yielding Type #44 plants have been transplanted internationally and are doing well in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Brazil.

The berries may provide farmers with additional income in the Ethiopian highlands where it grows best. Dr. Wolde-Yohannes believes that endod could be intercropped with food crops such as maize and potatoes, and the berries sold to lowland communities where bilharzia is endemic.

Endod may present an appropriate solution to the control of bilharzia in developing countries since it can be locally grown, and is far less expensive than importing the commercial chemicals now available. Furthermore, research reveals that endod berry extract breaks down into inert organic materials with in 48 hours. By contrast, commercial alternatives persist in the environment for a considerable period of time.

Research on endod could have been progressing during the past two decades, but financial support has been hard to obtain. While several eminent Western researchers have pushed its development through respected research organizations in the U.S., the level of financial support has been insufficient to get the moluscicide's properties recognized by an agency like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Lemma comments that " it has been very difficult to overcome the biases. one problem with endod is that it's too simple, too cheap. there are already chemicals in the marketplace and people don't want to invest in something which is unlikely to make a lot of money."

PVO's and Endod

Recent developments may be breaking with the trend of the past. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the United Nations Development Programme, along with the World Health Organization, are cooperating to evaluate the toxicology of endod. These organizations are preparing the way for pilot studies with endod in Ethiopia, Swaziland, and Zambia, and are working to create internationally recognized toxicological standards. UNESCO has recruited Dr. Lemma to advise them on technologies for health and development, which would include the development of endod for the organization's primary health-care program.

The IDRC, The Danish International Development Agency, The Finnish International Development Agency , the United Nations Fund for Science and Technology for Development are all involved in some effort to promote research and cooperative study on endod or the registration of endod extract as a natural pesticide.

For further information, contact:

Dr. Aklilu Lemma
International Child Development Centre
Piazza S.S. Annunziata 12
50122 Florence, ITALY
Fax 39 55 244 817