During the 13th international conference on Aids held in Durban, South Africa, in July 2000, a "motley collection of delegates" attired in exotic clothes huddled in a corner, far from the madding crowd of giant pharmaceutical companies which had bankrolled the conference. These companies fought pitched battles in conference rooms and even in the toilets about whose antiretroviral drug was the best (see NA, Sept 2000).
The motive was profit. It was about market share. The companies issued gruesome forecasts and statistics at the conference to create panic among governments. They saw a huge windfall in being the company with the drug to deal with "the death sentence". Africa was the market.
For that reason, the companies closed ranks to launch fierce attacks on manufacturers of generic drugs from developing countries like India and Brazil. Backed by a compliant press, they tried to portray these generic drugs as inferior.
All the "motley collection of delegates" could do was to meet privately, complain about their marginalisation, take some photos, and howl in the dark. They were completely ignored because they were "traditional healers". But they have not disappeared quietly into the dark. They have re-grouped, reorganised and have come back with a bang.
In Africa and many developing countries, a huge percentage of the people are attended to by traditional healers. They have been there all the time and have sustained the health of Africa over the centuries.
Anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that they have also been the physicians of last resort when Western medicines have failed. Many Aids patients have testified to an improvement in health after visiting traditional healers.
In the West itself, the burgeoning trade in herbal remedies supports the argument for keeping Africa's traditional medicines. Then there is the problem of the shotgun approach of antiretroviral drugs that indiscriminately attack sick cells as well as healthy ones. This is in addition to the side effects that affect some patients. Furthermore, natural remedies have been demonstrated to be effective against opportunistic infections.
It is against this background that the South African government has been courageous in doing what is right by taking the proverbial bull by the horns. Now the intrepid health minister, Dr Manto Shabalala, has raked old wounds by saying that traditional medicines should not be integrated into Western medicine as it is a science "in its own right".
"Our primary objective is to establish a burgeoning centre of excellence that advances the contribution of African traditional medicines by addressing the health and economic needs of this country and the continent," she declared at the launch of the National Reference Centre for African Traditional Medicine in Cape Town.
The Centre will establish an information system on African traditional medicines, research into medicinal plants, identify education and training on traditional medicines, protect indigenous knowledge through patents and intellectual property rights, promote research into diseases, and establish a processing industry.
It will do exactly what Africa should have been doing all along. No wonder pressure groups, backed by some pharmaceutical companies, have vowed to fight the move away from drugs to natural methods. Such groups have pitched camp in South Africa and frequently taken the government to court to force it to distribute antiretroviral drugs.
Often traditional healers in Africa have met with antagonism and derision by their own governments and people. Their methods are written off as a panoply of superstitious and irrational beliefs.
However, what is often overlooked is the psychological factor in the healing process--the power of the mind to astronomically assist in healing by tapping into the individual's belief system, just like faith healers and the placebo effect. …