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Bridging the gap between traditional and western medicine

[Mozambique] Traditional healer and her helper prepare herbal medicines, Namaacha. [Date picture taken: February 2006]
Healing the rift (M.Sayagues/PlusNews)

Zambia's HIV/AIDS pandemic is helping to bridge the divide between traditional healers and practitioners of western medicine.

Earlier this year the government commissioned the first clinical trials of remedies dispensed by traditional healers who claimed to have found an AIDS cure, fostering closer relations between the two groups of practitioners. About one in five sexually active Zambian adults is infected with HIV/AIDS.

National AIDS Council spokesperson Justine Mwiinga told IRIN that the results would be published soon. "The three herbs passed all the tests and we have just concluded the six-month clinical observation period, after having successfully administered the same herbs to 30 people living with HIV/AIDS."

Clinical tests conducted by medical doctors determined the composition and properties of the traditional healers' remedies, while monitoring the patients' CD4 count (which measures the strength of the immune system), viral load (which measures the amount of HIV in the blood) and appetite.

"Initial indications show that each of the three formulae has its own unique healing properties ... Some increase the patients' CD4 count while others reduce the viral load, or simply treat a number of opportunistic infections like coughing, rashes and tuberculosis - but we are not saying Zambia has found a cure for HIV/AIDS," said Mwiinga.

Rodwell Vongo, president of the 40,000-strong Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia, said the membership included herbalists, spiritualists, diviners and traditional birth attendants.

"People have a lot of faith in us because we are constantly in touch with them. Even when they are diagnosed HIV positive and put on TB drugs, they still come to seek our opinion," he said. "Therefore, if we allow the divide between healers and medical doctors to continue, healers may become counterproductive because we surely have the authority to command any patient to discontinue the medical doctor's prescribed medicine."

Vongo said both his organisation and western-trained medical doctors worked for the "patient's wellbeing and, by working together, we shall cushion government's depleted resources and save many lives."

About 1.6 million of Zambia's 10 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, but only 60,000 have access to antiretroviral (ARV) medication.

Zambia's health sector has been depleted by medical staff seeking higher salaries and better working conditions in other countries.

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) 2006 report, Working Together For Health, cited the shortage of trained health professionals as one of the main problems in low-income countries struggling against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Zambia has about 600 registered doctors in the public and private health sectors. The doctor-to-patient ratio in the UK is about one to 50; in Zambia it is about one to 14,000.

WHO acknowledged traditional health practitioners as a key resource in HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and stressed that an effective response to the pandemic would require collaboration between traditional and medical health providers.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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