SOUTH AFRICA: Traditional healers extend healthcare

Bad reputation
DURBAN, 1 April 2010 (PlusNews) - South Africa's traditional healing profession has often been mired in controversy over treating HIV/AIDS, with dodgy traditional remedies promoted as alternatives to antiretroviral (ARV) medication, and some groups of traditional healers being associated with AIDS denialists.

But not all traditional healers deserve the bad rap. Duduzile Magubane is one of the 1,200 traditional healers in KwaZulu-Natal Province who participated in the Biomedical and Traditional Healing Collaboration Against HIV/AIDS, a groundbreaking project aimed at empowering traditional healers to play a meaningful role in healthcare.

Magubane has been part of the project since its inception five years ago, and has attended several training programmes and workshops. In one of her consulting rooms in Folweni Township, south of the coastal city of Durban, folders containing her patients' records are stacked neatly beside her protective aprons, rubber gloves, bandages, antiseptics and condoms.

In the other room she uses her spiritual powers to diagnose thousands of patients a year and dispenses the necessary herbs. Magubane told IRIN/PlusNews that at first she was reluctant to take part in the project, but she learnt a lot and has become more organised in her work.

"I can now weigh my patients, write down their records, and monitor them as they go along. I also have developed a good working relationship with the local clinic, and when I see that a patient has symptoms of HIV infection, diabetes or high blood pressure, I refer them to the clinic so that they can conduct tests," she said.

Training with a difference

Research indicated a serious need to include traditional healers in the fight against HIV and AIDS, but in contrast to many well-meaning training programmes that have tended to ignore the experience of traditional healers, the project was developed after a series of workshops between traditional healers and the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

"Traditional healing is the most affordable and accessible healthcare system to the majority of the population, and many people consult a traditional healer when they are ill," said Prof Nceba Gqaleni, former deputy dean of the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, who also served on the World Health Organisation's traditional medicine committee from 2002 to 2006, and is the head of the project.

"In the past doctors and nurses have been taken to training and workshops to empower them to deal with HIV and AIDS, but this was not extended to the traditional healers despite their role in African societies," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

''Traditional healing is the most affordable and accessible healthcare system to the majority of the population''
The project is funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and run by the university, traditional healers and the provincial health department. Gqaleni said the programme included a 5-day training workshop that focused on immune system response to viral invasion and disease progression. Medical animations are combined with graphics and dramatic enactment to ensure better understanding.

A booklet of guidelines helps traditional healers recognise HIV-related symptoms in their patients. "By working in the project we have also learnt that healers who claim to have a cure for HIV/AIDS are actually healing opportunistic infections, such as diarrhoea," said Gqaleni.

Clinics also involved

Sister Thandiwe Cele, head of the Folweni Clinic, said the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department had issued a directive requiring clinics to work closely with local traditional healers, especially in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

"We have about 20 traditional healers who work with us here - they refer their patients to us for testing. Some of our patients tell us they would like to get traditional treatment and we refer them to these healers because they have been taught well on how to take care of patients."

As a result of the project, patients with HIV now come to the clinic early and get the necessary medication, Cele said. Working with traditional healers has also decreased the risk of people being taken in by charlatans who claimed to cure all sorts of conditions - including HIV.

So far, the programme has been run as a pilot project in a few high-prevalence districts in KwaZulu-Natal, but its success has prompted traditional healers in other provinces to call on government to implement it nationally. Gqaleni noted that international organisations had expressed an interest in replicating it in other parts of the continent.

Cebokwakhe Khondo, another healer, said the project had trained more than 350 in his area. "We are very pleased with the things we have learnt here. Many traditional healers are happy because they said it removed a stigma that they are the people who are spreading HIV."


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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