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Traditional Doctors to be regulated

Traditional Doctors may issue sick leaves

The Government of Botswana is having sleepless nights in responding to calls by the World Health Organization (WHO) to incorporate safe and effective traditional medicine into the primary health-care system as well as bring traditional healers into a legal framework.


What makes it difficult is the pollution of the practice by bogus traditional practitioners who claim supernatural powers and often than not put people’s lives in danger. Traditional medicine is mostly issued by traditional doctors who have become notorious for claiming the know-how and powers to cure ailments.


Efforts to curb this group and discourage communities not to rely on them have proved futile as traditional doctors still remain central to the culture of many Africans. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 per cent of people in Africa regularly seek their services.


The government in its efforts to curb these incidences decided to come up with a law that will look into these issues.


The proposed Bill seeks to address among other issues concerns that some healers claim to possess cures for various terminal ailments, among them HIV/AIDS. This will be addressed by a Council that will, among other things, authenticate the efficacy of herbal medicines.


Other concerns on the side of government are possible risks of cross infections through contaminated body piercing instruments and other means during traditional doctors’ treatment processes as well as the influx of foreign nationals claiming to be traditional doctors.


Traditional doctors through their Umbrella bodies have already made a promise to the government that they would refer infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis to medical doctors.


Weekendpost has established that the government is finding it difficult to address some of the issues including the definition of who is a traditional doctor. Some of the issues that make it difficult are rooted traditions that some traditional doctors claim to have inherited or have been taught the practice by their parents while some go for actual training and so forth.


The question of definition is expected to cause uproar once it is finalized. The bill also envisages referrals from one party to the other among many other issues.


Plans to involve and regulate traditional doctors emanated from a growing realization that it is possible for traditional and western practitioners to work together to improve patients’ well-being, especially when it comes to developing new medications, reporting new cases of contagious diseases and finding ways to ensure that patients stick to their prescribed treatments according to research.


Traditional doctors have in-depth knowledge of plant materials and their various curative powers. They use leaves, seeds, stems, bark or roots to treat symptoms. Most traditional healers are both herbalists and diviners, while some specialize in one aspect.


This healing system rose to popularity after the realization that Doctors trained in the Western sciences largely focus on the biomedical causes of disease, traditional beliefs take a more holistic approach.


Although traditional doctors are not officially recognized by government and still operate outside formal health structures, Batswana still consider them essential in their day to day lives. This has, in some instances, led to catastrophic incidences where some patients preferring traditional doctors disregard medical doctors’ advice and choose to take herbal medicines that have dangerous interactions with pharmaceuticals.


In 2002, WHO issued its first comprehensive guidelines to help countries such as Zimbabwe, develop policies to regulate traditional medicine. Zimbabwe is of the view that there is need for some standardization of operations and that people should be able to consult registered and licensed traditional healers at proper premises.


South Africa leads continental efforts to bring traditional healers into a legal framework. In early 2005, South African Parliament approved a law to recognize the country’s estimated 200,000 healers as health-service providers. It is understood that those registered would, for example, be allowed to prescribe sick leave and offer treatment for numerous conditions. Some hailed this as an important step in rooting out charlatans and protecting patients, but others saw it differently.


In a brief interview with Weekendpost, Medical Practitioners Group chairperson, Dr Gagoitsiwe Saleshando said they welcome the move by the Ministry. He added that the law will help in the exchange of ideas to move the health of the nation forward.


“However this must be done in a way that will not jeopardize the health of the nation by promoting anything that may be hazardous to people in the long run,” he warned.


 Doctors for Life, which represents over a thousand health practitioners in South Africa, however is objected to the government’s plans to legitimize healers.


“Most of the medicines used by traditional practitioners have not been validated scientifically,” states Doctors for Life.


“Many people suffer because of the serious complications that arise due to the use of traditional medicines.” The group warned that such a law could open “a can of worms” of legal controversies and medical complications. They urged that remedies be thoroughly researched before approval.


Other medical practitioners point out that traditional healers, with or without the support of the law, are already providing services within communities. Bringing them within the primary-health fold would therefore help rather than hinder efforts to flush out harmful practices.


Research shows that in Tanzania, the Dar es Salaam-based Institute of Traditional Medicine has a pilot programme to test the efficacy of local herbs in helping reduce the severity of other illnesses often seen in HIV patients.


Herbalists, it is understood, are allowing the institute to evaluate the substances they use to treat patients. If scientists discover beneficial elements in the herbs, they purify them and determine what the proper dosage should be. This addresses a major concern that some people have with the way medicines have been prescribed by traditional healers. Some 25 herbalists are currently working with the institute.


The Minister of Health was unable to give this publication her comment saying she was still busy in a meeting.

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