Herbal remedies: sustainable way for HIV treatment

1 December, 2010, Esther Nakkazi

About 70 percent of Ugandans infected with HIV go back to nature and consult traditional herbalists for HIV treatment

When the cock crows and birds fly out of their nests early morning, the African herbalists rise with the sun to go to the forests.

There, they pick fresh leaves, peel new bark off trees and dig plant roots from the soft ground before the sun hits it. They then apply the knowledge most of them acquired from their ancestors.[frax09alpha]

Traditional herbalists are custodians of knowledge on herbal concoctions that are used by millions of Africans to survive.

In Uganda, they are big contributors to HIV treatment, as high costs and shortages of modern drugs remains imminent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 80 percent of people in the developing world still rely on herbal remedies for their health care.

It has thus adopted a deliberate policy of encouraging the development and utilization of traditional medicine in HIV treatment and care.

It is estimated that 70 percent of Ugandans infected with HIV go back to nature and consult traditional herbalists for treatment as various symptoms present.

However, the herbalists feel there is still a lot of stigma about the use of herbs in HIV/Aids, although it remains a sustainable way in HIV treatment.

“When a client goes for HIV treatment, they do not mention their use of traditional medicine. Yet the drug interaction between herbs and anti-retroviral drugs could be dangerous,” said Ms. Primrose Kyeyune, a technical advisor,
Traditional and Modern Health Practioneers Together against AIDS (THETA).

Experts say the attitude towards traditional medicine is bad because people do not want to be associated with it.

Yet it is used widely used, almost everyday in herbal toothpaste, Vaseline, soap; it is hard to measure the extent of its use especially in urban areas because there is limited evidence on usage.

“People stigmatize herbal medicine but they buy it everyday and prefer herbal products,” according to THETA officials this can only be reduced through training and counseling of both the herbalists and the HIV patients.

Started in 1992, THETA is a Uganda NGO that has been working with traditional healers in Uganda especially in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

With THETA training, most herbalists have changed their ways of administering herbs in HIV treatment and care.

Many, now can identify the dangerous HIV symptoms and refer patients to health facilities to test for HIV. They have also been trained to do referral, record keeping, minimum standards of hygiene and counseling.

“Originally they used to claim that they heal HIV but with our training they now have knowledge that it is not curable,” said Grace Nanyonga, the information officer THETA.

THETA has trained the herbalists to understand the HIV cycle, which has ensured that most of them know that they can treat symptoms but cannot heal HIV.

Working as a team, the herbalists have now come up with herbs for HIV that can boost the immune system, relieve Herpes Zoster, diarrhea, skin diseases and oral thrush, opportunistic infections of Aids.

Some of the herbs have been investigated at the research Laboratory in Wandegeya, a Kampala surburb, and found to have active substances that are therapeutically useful.

Ssenga Bernadette Nabatanzi, says since she joined THETA and trained under the Regional Aids Training Network (RATN) her way of treating patients has changed.

“I am now able to keep records of my clients- like the date, age, physical and telephone contacts, next of kin, type of disease-or symptoms, and the medicine, which I have administered.”

“In practice, I cannot cut patients with the same razor blade anymore and the patients do not accept because they know their rights. They cannot take herbs which we spit on,” said Nabatanzi a reproductive health specialist.

With limited time and long lines of patients, most doctors using modern medicines do not have the time to counsel patients and gain their trust.

However, herbalists who are usually permanent residents of the community, always available and have a lot of time can administer in-depth counseling.

THETA has integrated HIV/Aids information into counseling relating HIV to culture, which enables the patients to feel better.

In counseling HIV patients, the herbalists are encouraged to prepare, persuade them, and request those who have symptoms to go and check for HIV.

“Usually when they test and find that they are HIV positive they come back and consult me. They confide in me because most herbalists become their confidants and counselors,” said Nabatanzi who also advises on a good diet.

For their services, the counselors accept cash payments in installments or in kind – beans, goats, chicken.

The herbalists have also been taught to about minimum standards of hygiene- toilets, clean drinking water, well lit and ventilated clinics so as not to get infected with tuberculosis.

“I am well respected in the society; and the community prefers coming to my clinic,” said Suleiman Nkuutu an herbalist.

However, THETA remains with big challenges. As the communities continue to seek herbalists’ services, they charge exorbitant fees and with no law they are not regulated and some administer fake herbs. Also, most of the herbalists are extremely rich, untrainable, rigid, secretive- they fear that their mixtures will be stolen thus work at night.

As such, the bio-medicals treat herbalists with a lot of suspicion and disregard. However, with continued training the gap is getting closed as they start appreciating each other’s role.

THETA officials say they can work with all those that fall in the WHO definition of traditional herbalists including those who sacrifice children.

“We would wish to have the witches who sacrifice children on board so that we educate them to stop the practice. IF the government can support us we can come together and train all of them using our trainers,” said Ms. Kyeyune.

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