Africa: People Turn to Indigenous Medicine

Buluwayo — Zimbabwe's government recently announced that the country had run out of the critical painkiller morphine. It was just the latest development in a debilitating health care crisis that has seen hospitals turn away patients because of drug shortages.

An underfunded health sector has been in rapid decline in Zimbabwe, where shortages of medicines are the rule and health professionals have left the country in droves over the past decade to seek better salaries abroad.

In the absence of even a basic drug such as paracetamol, desperate patients like 44-year-old asthma sufferer Susan Pamire have turned to traditional herbs.

While traditional healers have long retained a rural client base, urban residents are now also turning to them.

"Traditional herbs have become the sole alternative for me, even though I still prefer medicine from the clinic," said Pamire, who has also battled hypertension for years.

"Better these visits to the inyanga [the local name for a traditional healer] than wait for tablets from the clinic, which I know are not available, or else I would die waiting," the mother of five told IPS.

People like Janet Dliwayo, who has long experience harvesting herbs in rural Matebeleland, are able to operate in a thriving herbal market in Bulawayo's Makokoba township.

"The medicines I sell here come from my rural area, where not everyone knows which tree or herb treats what," Dliwayo says.

Sibangilizwe Dube, a member of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), says the government's admission that it is failing to provide medicine points to a need to take traditional healers more seriously.

"There is still cynicism among some doctors who think we cannot fill the gap by providing life-saving herbs and medicines," Dube said.

"Yet we know there are researchers who come into the country and steal our knowledge to make drugs overseas. I do not understand it," Dube said.

International researchers have over the past decade looked to the use made of the rich biodiversity by traditional healers in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Southern Africa, for promising leads to develop treatments for some of the world's deadliest diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which has taken an active role in facilitating communication between medical scientists, public health authorities and traditional healers, estimates that up to 80 percent of Zimbabweans rely on herbal remedies for their health care.

These numbers are true for many countries across Africa, says Dr Banele Gama, a Zimbabwean medical practitioner working in South Africa.

"What people generally want is better access to medicine and health care. If they can get this outside of hospitals and at a low-cost, I believe governments should encourage the traditional practitioners whose indigenous knowledge of herbs cannot be dismissed," Gama told IPS.

The near-absence of standardisation and proper regulation means the use of traditional medicines poses some risks. Professional health bodies in Zimbabwe have decried the illegal importation of alternative medicines from as far afield as China.

This month, the Traditional Medical Council of Zimbabwe which is registered under the Ministry of Health announced that it was pushing for the toughening of laws that govern the importation of traditional medicines, as it had noted an alarming increase in the smuggling of medicinal herbs into the country.

Healers within the country also need to regulation. Dr Rashai Mbudzi, head of the Traditional Medical Council of Zimbabwe, told state media this month that there is a need for traditional medical practitioners to formalise their operations if they are to effectively participate in the health services sector.

"We encourage traditional medical practitioners to register with us to carry out research on their operations. This will enhance the quality of their practice and also encourage them to have areas of specialisation so that they can easily network with hospitals," Mbudzi said.

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