African healers join the AIDS fight

Both President Bush and WHO have recognized a role for traditional healers and their holistic approach.

Settled comfortably on a tattered couch in the corner of a tiny hut in this West Cameroonian village, Joseph Becker, a medical student from San Francisco, begins with a simple question.

"Where does AIDS come from?" he asks the group of traditional healers.

The answers come slowly at first, then faster as the group gains confidence.

"Through sex," says a voice in the back corner. "Through razor blades," says another.

Mr. Becker nods. These men and women have come a long way since his first visit here more than a year ago. Some used to think AIDS was a punishment meted out by God, part of a CIA conspiracy, or spread by a fearsome dog.

"I think they have incorporated the basics," says Becker, who for two years has split his time between Cameroon and San Francisco, where he recently completed medical school at the University of California.

"That group is particularly savvy and well-organized."

To Western medical workers like Becker, traditional African healers - tribal elders who use natural remedies in their medical practice - have become indispensable in the fight against AIDS in Cameroon and around Africa.

The respect these healers garner from their communities makes them a key mouthpiece for passing along accurate information about how the disease is spread.

And their holistic approach toward healing has produced results that impress even visiting health workers.

"We are ready to walk hand in hand with Western medicine," says Beyongo David Livingston, president of the group here in Matoh, as his fellow healers nod in approval.

Recognition abroad

Even the Bush administration has taken notice, albeit cautiously. The fact sheet on President Bush's recent $15 billion pledge to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, signed into law last month, includes using traditional healers "trained in standard clinical evaluations and distribution of medication pack refills," to disseminate aid and advice in rural areas.

As well, the West has begun to recognize their role as physicians. A 2001 study by the World Health Organization following the treatment of HIV patients in Zimbabwe using traditional, herbal medicine over a six-month period reported "encouraging results."

Meditation can also be part of traditional treatment, as healers try to both encourage their patients and foster a sense of hope.

"Modern doctors make a big distinction between spiritual and herbal medicine," says Dr. Jaco Homsy, who founded one of the pioneering programs on traditional-modern medicine cooperation in Uganda over 10 years ago.

"Yet many traditional healers use both. For them, it's a part of a whole. That's the difference."

Skeptics at home

Critics, however, say traditional doctors will often help patients feel better without actually making them better. They will treat their patients' symptoms without addressing the cause, leading them to believe they are being cured.

"Our traditional doctors will never say they cannot treat a disease. That is the first problem we have with them," says Dr. Peter Enyong, who runs the Tropical Medicine Research Station in Kumba.

Most African countries still haven't officially embraced traditional healers as part of their national health campaigns. Uganda, which has a desk in the health ministry devoted to traditional healers, is perhaps the most progressive among African nations in its collaboration with traditional doctors, says Dr. Homsy. Cameroon, on the other hand, with an HIV infection rate of 12 percent, has no government-sponsored association with traditional medicine. Dr. Leopold Zekeng, head of the country's AIDS program, says it's because healers just can't be trusted.

"Out of 100, you might only have five who are really good traditional doctors," says Dr. Zekeng, in an argument typical of many skeptics. "The rest might be fake, going around saying they can cure AIDS. We need to work on this before we embark on any sort of collaboration."

Though the progress made by the healers Becker has worked with is encouraging, he wonders how effective they can be in the long run.

"It's kind of disquieting to know that when you send these people on their way, you really don't know what is being accomplished at the end of the day," he says.

For the time being, at least, Becker understands that in the dusty streets and impoverished homes of villages like Matoh, healers are the only choice he has in getting the message out.

"If they want to tell people they should kill a goat to cure HIV, well fine," he says. "It's a harm-reduction model. As long as they're also telling people how it's spread, it's okay.

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