Academic journal article Nursing and Health Care Perspectives

Traditional Medicine in Belize: The Original Primary Health Care

Academic journal article Nursing and Health Care Perspectives

Traditional Medicine in Belize: The Original Primary Health Care

Article excerpt

WHILE COMPLETING the clinical portion of my bachelor' in nursing degree in southern Belize in Central America, I had the unique opportunity to converse with and observe traditional healers in their natural surroundings, lush rain forests abounding with medicinal plants. The rain forests play a vital role in the lives of the several thousand Mopan and Ketchi Maya who live in southern Belize. Their strong cultural identity is rooted in tradition, especially among the older generations. [paragraph] Belize offers one of the most diverse plant life regions in Central America, and local plants continue to be used for healing. The rain forests, which are a significant attraction in the growing tourism industry, are essential for the animal life and traditional medicines they provide.

The People of Belize Belize is a tiny country with a population of approximately 235,000 and a population density of 10 persons per square kilometer (1). It is one of the least populated nations in Central America. Nestled between Guatemala and Mexico, with its east coast along the Caribbean Sea, its population is predominantly English speaking. Belize was formerly colonized by the British and known as British Honduras.

Despite its small population, Belize is surprisingly diverse in culture. Mestizos (persons of mixed heritage from Spanish decent and indigenous peoples) constitute 43.6 percent of the population; Creoles (mixed African and European heritage), 30 percent; Garifuna or Black Caribs (African decent), 6.6 percent; and Ketchi Mayan and Mopan Mayan, 4.3 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. There are also East Indians, Chinese, and a sprinkle of Mennonite and Lebanese (1). Each culture retains its own language and customs while also speaking English. The Mopan and Ketchi Maya live predominantly in the remote villages in the foothills of the Mayan Mountains, which run north-south along the border with Guatemala.

Belize is unique in Central America with respect to health policy. Approximately 75 percent of the population have access to relatively good health care, including hospitals, rural health centers, and mobile clinics. However, about half of those living in rural areas have difficulties accessing the health care system, and a shortage of rural nurses remains (1). The government, to meet its commitment to the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of equal access to health care for all by the year 2000, recognizes the importance of the traditional healers in the villages.

Unlike other Latin American countries, such as Peru, which prohibits traditional healers from practicing (2), Belize respects the knowledge of traditional healers and permits them to practice their art without interference. However, traditional healing is not fully integrated into the health care system.

The Role of Traditional Healers Several types of traditional healers practice in Belize, including birth attendants, bush doctors, granny healers, spiritual healers, and snake doctors. Community health workers act as liaisons between the traditional healers and the district health care system. It is not uncommon for an individual to hold several of these titles.

Traditional birth attendants are unlicensed midwives who, having watched and assisted, eventually deliver infants unaided in the home when expectant mothers are unable to reach health care facilities or prefer to give birth at home. (The Mopan and Ketchi Indians prefer home births.) Basic training is given by the Public Health Department to ensure safety and continuity of care for the mother and baby. The majority of traditional birth attendants use herbs and massage, skills they learned from their ancestors, as they care for both mother and child.

Bush doctors (bushmasters) and granny healers are one and the same, depending on their gender. There are usually one or two in each Mayan village. Their knowledge of the uses of plants usually comes from older family members and is passed down through the generations. …

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