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From: Traditional medicines – Footsteps 48

A discussion about how to use traditional medicines safely and effectively

by Dr Hans-Martin Hirt and Dr Keith Lindsey.

When Europeans first arrived in Africa, Asia and the Americas and witnessed practices such as ritual sacrifice and ancestor worship, they quickly labelled these as primitive. Instead, they introduced the people to European customs, culture and religion. However, we now recognise that there is much to learn from these traditional cultures. In rejecting some dangerous practices, many other beneficial practices were ignored.

A desperate situation

Today, western chemical and pharmaceutical firms are rushing to patent the production of medicines from tropical plants such as the neem and shea butter trees, periwinkle and many other plants. The healing properties of many of these plants is now proven by recent scientific research, but they have been used in traditional recipes for many centuries.

The situation in many tropical countries is now quite desperate. The rising price of medical drugs, modern patenting laws and the fall in value of local currencies mean that medical centres sometimes cannot afford even the most basic drugs. At the same time, local knowledge and skills about herbal remedies are being rapidly lost. Many communities are being left with no health expertise at all.

Co-operation between all concerned in providing healthcare – both traditional healers and medical staff – is therefore extremely important for the well-being of local people.

Getting together

Anamed is a small, Christian initiative in Germany. They have considerable experience in providing seminars on ‘natural medicine’. These seminars usually last for one week with about 30 people, some of whom are trained in modern medical practice such as doctors, nurses and primary healthcare workers, and some of whom are traditional healers.

Anamed describes natural medicine as combining the advantages of the medicine of the South with those of the medicine of the North.

Good, traditional herbal medicine is accessible, uses locally available plants, is relatively cheap (and can sometimes be paid for in chickens instead of money) and is very personal. Modern medicine, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of cleanliness and hygiene, and accurate measurement and dosages. So each party has a lot to learn from the other!

Today there is still often deep suspicion and mistrust between traditional healers and hospital workers. We understand both parties. From the point of view of doctors and missionaries, healers instil fear, put curses on people, do ridiculous things like ‘removing false teeth’, or cause terrible mutilations, thereby often killing people. From the view of the healer, on the other hand, doctors exploit their patients, have no understanding of cultural beliefs and behaviour and do not reveal their knowledge about how to prevent diseases. Many healers believe that doctors do not try to bring good health to the region, but rather seek to make lots of money by treating a high number of ‘their’ former patients.

Mutual respect

During the seminars, an important first step is arranging for the healers and doctors to eat the same meals together, and to sleep in the same houses! The second step is to enable mutual respect to develop by allowing them to recognise that each has successes and failures in their treatments. The third step is then to begin sharing some of their knowledge with each other.

On the last day of our seminars, we discuss how to organise future cooperation. The medical workers elect one person to be their representative, and the healers do the same. These two representatives meet every month, or more often when problems arise. They act as the formal channel of communication between the groups. Here are examples of situations that may well arise:

Many churches accuse the healers of practising witchcraft. In our seminars we always take enough time to discuss this very important issue. It is, however, certainly the case that if a healer has ready access to all the plants he needs, the temptation to use witchcraft will be much less. Establishing a medicinal garden to provide a constant supply of herbs is vital.

The benefits of the seminars

We find that bringing together traditional and medical healers has the following positive results…

The general population is better informed, as local health committees choose representatives to attend the seminars, who report back to the people. People are better protected from bad and dangerous practices. For example, one source of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B infection in DR Congo is from some 40,000 untrained healers who give injections using unsterilised syringes. Trained healers and traditional midwives can provide better treatment without spreading HIV/AIDS.

Encouraging good practice

We encourage ‘traditional healers’ to practise natural medicine. This means they agree NEVER to:

Instead, we encourage them to:

Advantages of the two systems - Western (modern) medicine and Traditional, herbal medicine

Western (modern)

Traditional, (herbal)

Hygienic

It uses locally available plants

Scientific and internationally accepted

There is no dangerous waste requiring safe disposal

The medical practitioner has a lot of training and understands the body and disease

No problems of foreign exchange for expensive drugs or delays at customs

A full medical examination is given, with laboratory tests

Usually cheap for the patient

Uses accurate dosages

Creates employment in the medicinal garden and the preparation of medicines

Medicines last a long time

Money paid for treatment stays in the local economy

Plants are identified by their scientific names

Encourages self reliance

The government controls standards of medical practice

The healer speaks the same language as the people

A large number of patients can be treated, for example during epidemics

Sometimes the only medical help available

Medical workers can increase the scope of their work significantly by establishing a medicinal garden and preparing and using medicines from the plants.

 

Here in Anamed, we are convinced that natural medicine combines the advantages of both systems. In countries which value the use of traditional herbs, the Ministry of Health can achieve far more, even on a limited health budget.

 

Dr Hans-Martin Hirt has many years’ experience in rural DR Congo. He and Keith Lindsey have a commitment to empowering and enabling people in their local communities through the exchange of knowledge. Anamed invite readers of Footsteps to do the same.

 

Contact: Anamed, Schafweide 77, 71364 Winnenden, Germany. Fax: +49 7195 65367 Email: anamed@t-online.de Website: www.anamed.org

 

Please note that Anamed are unable to either identify or carry out scientific analysis on medicinal plants for Footsteps readers. They are also unable to provide free literature or funding.

Case Study - A change of heart

A Methodist bishop in DR Congo used to forbid the hospitals in his diocese to use medicinal plants. Many nurses wanted to use these plants, as they were familiar with their use, but the bishop was frightened of witchcraft, and was determined only to use modern, western medicine in his diocese.

When we met him personally, we presented him with the Anamed poster of 60 medicinal plants that grow in his country, and the book Natural Medicine in the Tropics which describes how to prepare and use medicines from these plants. He immediately asked if he could treat his own diseases using the recipes in the book. We pointed out to him that this was contrary to his beliefs. He said that such well produced materials in fullcolour were certainly not traditional, but modern and scientific, and therefore totally acceptable!

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