(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Toxic toad scam killing patients

Traditional herbs and medicines on sale in a Kinshasa market. There is a ready market for such products, which are said to treat a variety of ailments, due to local beliefs and superstition
Eddy Isango/IRIN

Many people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are dying of treatable diseases because they attribute their symptoms to a poison they believe only traditional healers can cure, according to health officials.



"Many people are dying in this region because of this phobia whose current spread has to do with the environment we are living in and the wars we have experienced," said North Kivu provincial medical inspector Dominique Bahago.



He explained that people tend to first consult traditional healers when infected by diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, malaria, various cancers and HIV/AIDS because they are convinced they have been poisoned by karuho, a venom derived from chameleon and toad skin or rare plant extracts.



At least 30 percent of those testing positive for tuberculosis in eastern DRC health centres initially assumed they had been poisoned, Bahago said.



According to the director of the national tuberculosis control programme, Jean-Pierre Kabuayi, between 3,000 and 4,000 cases are registered annually in the province. The national average for tuberculosis deaths in North Kivu is 10 percent compared with 6 percent nationally.



Late treatment



"The number of tuberculosis deaths in North Kivu is high because most of the sick come to the health centres, unfortunately, when it is very late, when they are not able to respond to medication, after spending time in vain seeking to be detoxified from karuho poisoning," Kabuayi said. Even more patients fail to seek any medical care at all.



According to Bahago, by the time they reach a hospital, some people are "in a truly desperate state ... after wasting their time and money on charlatans".



For some of those who are HIV-positive, it is too late to administer antiretrovirals.



"More than 90 percent of HIV-positive patients come to us when they have reached [an advanced] stage," Tina Amisi Niota, a doctor specialising in HIV/AIDS at Bukavu’s Panzi hospital, told IRIN.



"They prefer to believe that they have been poisoned and go first to charlatans, which doesn’t work. At that stage they already have several infections which are hard to treat," she added.



Such reports that many of those practising traditional medicine have no real expertise and string along their patients with expensive but ineffective cures have done little to dampen people's faith in such "healers"



"It is better to first have a test done by a traditional practitioner or a healer," said Aminata Mbelu, a 27-year-old resident of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.












Traditional herbs and medicines on sale in a Kinshasa market. There is a ready market for such products, which are said to treat a variety of aliments, due to local beliefs and superstition

Eddy Isango/IRIN
Traditional herbs and medicines on sale in a Kinshasa market. There is a ready market for such products, which are said to treat a variety of aliments, due to local beliefs and superstition
http://www.irinnews.org/photo.aspx
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Toxic toad scam killing patients
Traditional herbs and medicines on sale in a Kinshasa market. There is a ready market for such products, which are said to treat a variety of aliments, due to local beliefs and superstition


Photo: Eddy Isango/IRIN
Traditional herbs: There are reports that many healers practising traditional medicine have no real expertise and string along their patients with expensive but ineffective cures

"If the test for karuho is negative then we go to a modern hospital to avoid death. Because once you are poisoned [with karuho] and then you are inadvertently injected with modern medicine you will definitely die ... the chemicals in modern medicine quickly poison the heart," said Mbelu, a mother of one.



Among those doing good business because of the phobia is Amuli Sasa, who told IRIN he was able to diagnose and treat karuho. "Each day I screen up to 20 people who each pay between US$1 and $5 for the test. But the treatment varies between $50 and $100," he said.



Spreading venom



Karuho phobia has spread beyond North Kivu to South Kivu, especially that province's capital, Bukavu, according to Barnabe Mulyumba Wa Mamba, a professor of sociology in the city.



Mulyumba said various waves of migration into the DRC over the years had contributed to the increase in the use and fear of karuho in DRC.



"Karuho was known in the Congo in the 1970s but the general phobia spread because of the wars, which started in 1994," he said.



Deep divisions between communities in the war-ravaged Kivus, where conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, has contributed to the widespread belief that enemies are bent on poisoning their foes.



There is one positive upshot, however: the suspicion that shaking hands is enough to administer the poison has led to widespread compulsive hand-washing, a trend that can only reduce disease transmission.



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