Traditional healers have a crucial role to play building the health system in Africa. This paper aims to compare the use of western medicine and traditional medicine. The paper aims to identify similarities and differences between western and African conceptions of diseases, cure and effective patient care. It argues for the regulation of traditional healers and traditional medicine, as well as for the application of human rights principles within the traditional healing profession. The use of western and traditional medicine depends on many factors such as the availability of funds to access the drugs. It also depends on an individual’s beliefs and culture. Most African people rely basically on traditional medicine on almost all their illnesses mainly because they trust its uses and they are so sceptical to use western medicine mainly because they do not trust it. This paper concludes with strategies by WHO to harmonise the two groups of practitioners but it will take a while before the groups agree on working together.
In this paper a comparison of Western medicines and African traditional medicines shall be made. The purpose of this paper is to identify similarities and differences between Western and African conceptions of diseases, cure and effective patient care.
According to Germov (2007, p. 8) Western Medicine is “the conventional approach to medicine in western societies, based on the diagnosis and explanation of illness as a mulfunction of the body’s biological mechanisms.” It encompasses a range of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness Hewson (1998). WHO defines Traditional medicine as “the sum total of knowledge, skills and practices based on theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses”.
Traditional medicine that has been adopted by other populations outside its own culture is often termed alternative or complementary medicine (WHO, 2008).
Helwig (2005) claimed that primary healers in traditional African medicine are midwives, herbalist and diviners. Diviners focus on the root causes of sickness by the ancestral spirits (Helwig, 2005). Midwives use herbs and local plants to assist with pregnancy and childbirth (Helwig, 20005). Herbalists use animal, plants and mineral based medicines to cure diseases (Helwig, 2005). Herb market and herb trading is a very common practice in many African countries (Helwig, 2005).
According to Okpako (2006) traditional African communities have three main groups of plants they use to cure serious illnesses, poisonous plants and plants for minor illnesses. Plants used for minor illnesses treat illnesses such as headaches; bruises and pain fever are used without consultation of spiritual healers (Okpako, 2006). Plants used for serious illnesses are used when dealing with life threatening illnesses and need the intervention of spiritual healers, what the patient gets is holistic treatment (Okpako, 2006).
Okpako (2006) stated that as for the poisonous plants, many African communities recognise it just from experience with it or from accidental poisoning. Okpako (2006) claimed that in most African countries, many people western medicines are out of their reach as they do not have money to buy the drugs and so they resort to traditional medicine is it cheap.
Traditional African medicine is based on accumulated experience of ancient Africans (Okpako, 2006). Traditional African medicine’s mode of transmission is spread by word of mouth and has hindered emergency of a generally accepted theory and hence of the systematic development of traditional African medicine as a self-regulating profession (Okpako, 2006).
Traditional African medicine practitioners are healers who believe that their methods can cure many conditions including cancer, AIDS, mental problems, infertility, some sexually transmitted diseases, wounds and burns as well as many other ailments and conditions (Helwig, 2005)
Good health is linked to a correct relationship between people and their supernatural environment (Helwig, 2005). According to Helwig (2005) among the traditional healers, being able to diagnose an illness is considered a gift from both God and the ancestors. Helwig claimed that “a major emphasis is placed on determining the root cause underlying any sickness or bad luck”. Illness is said to stem from lack of balance between the patient and his or her environment, (Helwig, 2005) Diviners may use plants not only for healing purposes but also to control weather and events, (Helwig, 2005). Helwig (2005) stated that “in addition to plants, traditional African healers may employ charms, incantations and casting of spells”. They are also skilled in psychotherapy and counselling (Helwig, 2005).
African healing systems recognise the influence of the mind on the human well being (Helwig, 2005). They recognise the negative emotions such as fear, guilt and hate can lead to illness (Helwig, 2005). Rituals are undertaken to appease the angered ancestral spirits, patients need to make confessions in order for the spirits to forgive them and be well (Helwig, 2005). The rituals accompanying the use of herbal medicine is referred to as “incantation”.
Incantation is a collection of carefully chosen words used to bring healing effect or resolving emotional conflict in the mind of the patient (Helwig, 2005). Spirits of the ancestors protect their living descendants, however ancestors demand from their descendant’s strict adherence to the moral laws laid down (Helwig, 2005). An immoral act for example incest is believed to annoy the spirits resulting in serious illness or misfortune (Helwig, 2005).
According to WHO, 80% of the African population depends on traditional medicine for primary health care. In Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Zambia, 60% of children with high fever resulting from malaria use herbal medicine at home. Lovell (2009) claimed that individuals suffering from pain, anxiety, depression, headaches and fatigue use alternative medicine. WHO estimates that several African countries practice traditional birth with the help of traditional midwives who uses indigenous plants to aid childbirth.
WHO (2008) claimed that 70% to 80% of the population in western countries has used some form of alternative or complementary medicine for example acupuncture.
As noted by Germov (2007) there are varied reasons why alternative medicine is so popular at the expense of western medicine. When people get sick they need to know the causes of the illness, suffering or even death (Germov, 2007). In Western medicine, the traditional view that illness was caused by spiritual evil is no longer valid. Alternative medicine that have an explanation to causes of illnesses and suffering have a greater appeal (Germov, 2007).
The desire to achieve a more holistic form of care may be a motivating factor as to why patients choose traditional medicine (Lovell, 2009).
In most African countries, drugs are out of reach to many people as they do not have the money to buy them. The only solution available is to resort to traditional medicine as it is cheap and reliable (Okpako, 2006).
Most African people are so skeptical to try western medicine. The main reason is that they are afraid to try something new and prefer to continue using their old way of seeking medical help that is the use of traditional medicine(Okpako, 2006).
As stated by Germov (2007) people have lost trust in western medicine. Many toxins found in the drugs have drove people away from the use of it. People have also lost trust in scientific experts, they blame them on almost all the environmental problems such as global warming, oil spills and even acid rain (Germov, 2007).
Germov (2007) claimed that there is a good relationship between ‘personal’ healer and patient. Personal healers take their time to listen and provide tailor made treatment to the individual client. By so doing they create a strong bond which can lead up to trust and loyalty.
Wilcox & Bodeker (2004) reported that in most African countries the rise in drug resistances and problems in accessing effective anti -malarial drugs in both remote and underprivileged areas has forced people to resort to traditional medicine as their source of treatment.
As noted by Marlise (2004) friction is evident between western medicines that look at material causation to understand and treat an illness and traditional medicine that generally looks towards the spiritual origin such as witchcraft and displeasure by ancestors in order to cure an ailment. According to Marlise (2004) there has been media reports of traditional healers claiming to have a cure for AIDS and submit their patients to dangerous or ineffective treatments.
Marlise (2004) stated that amongst some people in Africa, it is believed that if a sick person does not get treatment and dies, his or her spirit will cause more diseases. According to Marlise (2004) a number of traditional healers have seen a lucrative opportunity of curing people living with HIV/AIDS in the absence of biomedicine and a number of developing countries do not have access to anti-retroviral medication or adequate health care to those living with HIV/AIDS.
The WHO describes the problems related to clinical data on traditional medicine as steming from the poor quality of data and also the methodology used as being below the stipulated standard.
WHO (2008) claimed that traditional healers need to promote both their published and unpublished data inorder for them to gain support from the whole world.
Lovell (2009) stated that the gap between western medicine and traditional medicine practitioners is increasing. As stated by Lovell, “traditional healers do not believe that their practices are guaranteed worldwide and their argument is that the efficacy of their product has stood the test of time”.
All in all the use of western and African traditional medicine depends on an individual’s beliefs and culture. It also depends on the availability of funds to seek treatment. In Africa most people cannot afford to source western medicine mainly because it is very expensive and so they resort to their traditional medication mainly because it is cheaper. Precautions need to be taken carefully as there are a lot of side effects associated with the continued use of traditional medicine. Some of the side effects might lead to convulsions or even death.