Zambia: Traditional Healers And HIV/Aids

THE inclusion of traditional healers in the Copperbelt Province AIDS Task Force (PATF) signifies the important role they play in health care services.

It is a big shift from the days when traditional healers were simply dismissed as 'black magicians' who could only be consulted in matters of witchcraft.

They also carried an unfortunate tag of being called ignorant ,uncivilised people.

Not any more.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged the crucial role traditional healers play in many countries.

The WHO illustrates in a report how countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America use traditional medicine to help meet some of their primary health care needs.

It states that in Africa, 80 per cent of the population uses traditional medicine for primary health care.

In Uganda, for example, 67 per cent of the population resides in rural areas where modern health care services for HIV/ AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and malaria are scarce and far beyond their financial reach.

The majority of the people are subsistence farmers earning less than $1 daily.

Against such challenges, traditional medicine has given an alternative to millions of underprivileged individuals.

Traditional healers far outnumber biomedical workers in the rural areas.

They are consulted, not only because they are closer and more affordable than their Western-trained counterparts, but also because they are embedded, extensively and firmly, within Ugandan culture.

Traditional healers are highly respected and widely consulted by communities.

In spite of their low levels of education and training, the burden of providing care and support in rural areas has been left largely to traditional health practitioners.

A similar situation applies to Zambia where, according to a publication by the Zambia AIDS Law Research and Advocacy Network (ZARAN), 60 per cent of the country' population are receiving some or all of their medical care from traditional practitioners.

These include educated people living in urban areas where information on HIV/AIDS treatment is higher.

Government, through the National AIDS council, has stepped up its efforts in HIV/AIDS intervention programmes and has sought to bring many players on board.

Zambia is one of the sub-Saharan African countries worst affected by the pandemic, with a prevalence rate of about 14.3 per cent, according to the latest Ministry of Health estimates.

The 2008 Zambia Demographic Health Survey states that 16 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men of sexually active age are HIV positive, with young people aged between 15 and 24 accounting for 6.5 per cent of the HIV statistics.

The formation of AIDS task forces in all the provinces has helped in scaling up the fight against the disease.

The composition of the task forces which is expected to represent all sectors has not left out traditional healers.

Ndola District Traditional Healers Association chairperson, Milatu Mulenga says traditional healers can no longer be ignored in the provision of health care in the country.

After recognising their influence, some organisations have gone a step further to build capacity in traditional healers.

It is now acknowledged that support and the provision of appropriate knowledge and skills to traditional healers is urgently required so that they can fully play their role in availing primary health care to their patients.

It is also worth noting that, like in the case of Uganda, which is renowned for its good HIV/AIDS interventions efforts, traditional healers, whom the communities consult for information and treatment, are well organised to deliver the most wanted health services.

Mr Milatu, who sits on the Copperbelt PATF committee representing traditional healers, said an organisation called Alliance Zambia engaged them in a programme to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the community as they had observed that most patients pass through traditional healers before they could seek treatment in hospitals.

Mr Milatu said he mobilised his fellow traditional healers and traditional birth attendants to attend the awareness talk on HIV/AIDS.

Some organisations invited included the Network of Zambian People Living with HIV/AIDS (NZP+) and the Catholic Diocese of Ndola.

They were educated on the proper use of razor blades and gloves when treating patients.

Traditional healers were advised not to prescribe traditional medicines to patients who were already on anti-retroviral treatment as that compromised their treatment.

"We have become counselors, we encourage our patients to go for VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) and we advise them on what steps to take if they are found to be HIV-positive," Mr Milatu said in an interview in Ndola.

Copperbelt Province medical officer, Chandwa Ng'ambi says HIV/AIDS is a problem that requires an urgent response.

Dr Ng'ambi, who is the chairperson of the Copperbelt PATF, said HIV has affected the whole strata of society and has a significant impact on socio-economic development of Zambia.

The response should, therefore, be more focused and sustained.

Addressing PATF members in Ndola recently, Dr Ng'ambi said people should take ownership of HIV/AIDS intervention programmes.

PATF is responsible for coordinating activities and providing recommendations to the relevant bodies and authorities.

As a study commissioned by the KwaZulu-Natal department of health in 2006 showed, traditional healers can play an important role in the prevention, care and treatment of HIV infection and AIDS, and Zambia is now alive to that fact.

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