Jack Githae believes Africa could defeat its AIDS epidemic if it would embrace the healing powers of herbs. The Kenyan healer is one of a growing number of African herbalists who believe that ancient wisdom could help cure this modern disease. ?To me this is a natural pharmacy,? says Githae. ?We have seen such miraculous cures from this natural pharmacy in the last 30 years that I don?t tell anybody ?you are going to die.??
Traditional healers in Africa say their remedies offer huge potential to fight diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia that prey on HIV patients, but governments and doctors reject their offers to help. ?How can we ignore such knowledge when people are dying like flies?? says Githae, who wears a white lab coat while looking for herbs in the woods.
Africa has 28.1 million of the world?s 40 million people living with HIV-AIDS. Healers say Western-trained doctors need all the help they can get. They argue that their pills and potions are cheap, available in remote areas, and above all, they work. ?We went with those people who the white doctors had abandoned and told to go home and die,? says Credo Mutwa, an 80-year-old South African healer. ?We brought them back from the shores of death.? He uses the Sutherlandia Frutescens plant to combat AIDS-related weight loss.
For centuries, African healers have used plants to treat illnesses like diarrhea and lung infections that attack immune systems weakened by HIV. It is these diseases, rather than the virus itself, that can kill AIDS patients. One of the main problems with AIDS in Africa is the cost of modern Western medicines. Githae charges $3.20 a week for an HIV medicine that he says boosts immunity levels.
While doctors say they want more evidence that traditional remedies work, many patients swear by them. ?I was suspicious of herbal medicine. I thought of it as witchcraft,? says one 26-year-old HIV-positive Kenyan woman, who uses a Neem tree soap to treat herpes. ?Now everyone asks me what I use on my skin because I don?t have ugly wounds any more.?
The World Health Organization (WHO) says 80 percent of people rely on herbs for medicine in countries from South Africa to Ethiopia. In Ghana, there is about one traditional practitioner for every 400 people, compared to one doctor per 12,000 people. Many modern Western medicines were originally discovered in Rain Forests and by consulting traditional healers.
Herbalists say much of the skepticism about them dates back to colonial days, when Western governments ruling countries outlawed traditional medicine, calling it ?primitive.? ?They look at us with mistrust, we look at them with a superiority complex,? says Serge Eholie, deputy clinic head at the infectious and tropical disease unit of the Treichville hospital in the Ivory Coast. Eholie says the main problem is that herbal lore passed on by grandmothers is seldom researched and documented, ?But no African doctor can dismiss traditional healers or pretend they are not there. We need to train them and work with them so they can help us treat people.?
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