Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

2. Century plant (Agave americana)

Agave americana square.jpgThe leaves of the century plant, Agave americana, might be able to stop the growth of the bacteria that cause Typhoid fever. Typhoid fever has been a danger to human health for centuries, first recorded as a plague in Ancient Greece in 430 BCE. But outbreaks are still occurring, and more and more often they are multidrug-resistant (MDR) strains, which can’t be treated with normal antibiotics.

One of the more severe outbreaks of Typhoid fever in the time before we had antibiotics may have been in what is now northern Mexico, around the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Agave was used by the Aztecs who lived in that area to try to prevent infection of head wounds. The leaves of the plant were squeezed to get out sap, which, with another herb, was brushed on the wound. We can’t know for sure whether it actually worked, but this remedy may have had some positive effect on death tolls.

This is one of many examples of how medicine traditions from around the world may have developed effective plant-derived treatments for infections. Western medicine and science is only now beginning to test these remedies (making sure they really do work) and accepting them where they do.

Magnifying Glass small
How much do you think we should rely on antimicrobial knowledge from traditional medicines compared to knowledge from Western medicine?

As the Aztec Typhoid treatment example shows, medical traditions around the world have used antimicrobials (often without fully knowing how they work) in disease treatment for centuries, or even longer. For a while, Western bioprospectors (often colonial botanists looking for exotic plant cures for diseases back home) were happy to take on board these treatments (in fact, that’s how we got quinines as a treatment for malaria).

In many cases, this is still true today, but in some areas, there has been resistance in Western medicine to relying on or adopting traditional and indigenous knowledge of disease treatment. That might be because there has been less scientific testing of treatments in some medical traditions, and so we’re still unsure whether most plant-derived treatments really work.

But there might be another reason as well, which comes down to a lack of respect for medical traditions outside Western science. Where there’s no good reason for disregarding the knowledge of certain groups, we call this epistemic injustice. The longer we fail to acknowledge treatment innovation and successful practice in traditional medicine and find out whether these possible treatments stand up to scientific testing through lab experiments and clinical trials, the harder it might be to address antimicrobial resistance.