Zimbabweans living with HIV turn to herbal medicines

After mocrea in the 1990s and the African potato five years ago, moringa powder is the latest medical craze for Zimbabweans battling one of the world’s highest HIV/Aids infection rates.

“Do you want to feel well, have a healthy appetite and live longer?” a pamphlet on a supermarket noticeboard screams in bold print.

“Get yourself some moringa leaf, root, bark or powder,” it says before cataloguing the benefits from the concoction that is sprinkled over cooked food.

For many like Donance Kangausaru, who tested positive for HIV/Aids in 1990, the cost of taking anti-retrovirals is out of reach and he is not considered sick enough to qualify for free drugs under the government’s plan.

“After a friend introduced me to moringa, I compared that with the price of drugs and found it was cheaper,” said Kangausaru (39) who has become a familiar face in Zimbawe after he appeared in a series of television ad campaigns encouraging “positive living”.

“There are many more people in similar circumstances and I would encourage them to take herbs,” said Kangausaru, who has been taking moringa for the past two years.

He said the herbs from the baobab-like moringa tree, which grows in Binga in northern Zimbabwe, helped boost his immune system and fight off colds.

But the Zimbabwe Medical Association (Zima) said the hype over moringa was unwarranted and that there was no evidence to support that the herb helped reverse symptoms of HIV infection.

“We don’t want a situation where an individual takes a certain type of food or herb and their CD4 count improves and they go around trying to promote that food or herb as an immune booster,” said Zima president Billy Rigava.

“People should take anti-retrovirals and where there is nothing, the tendency is to take anything that might help,” he said.

Fewer than 20 000 Zimbabweans out of an estimated 1,8-million living with HIV/Aids are receiving free anti-retrovirals under the government’s rollout programme.

The government has pledged to scale up its ARV rollout to 100 000 by year-end as the latest figures show that HIV/Aids-related illnesses are leading to 3 000 deaths per week in Zimbabwe.

In the 1990s mocrea, a Chinese herb, was “the wonder medicine” being touted everywhere but when Zimbabweans kept dying from HIV/Aids, attention turned to the African potato, a bulbous root that is boiled and then eaten.

Kangausaru who runs the Yemurai Centre, a voluntary organisation helping people living with HIV/Aids, is adamant that moringa works.

“I was not like this, I had a skin rash and was susceptible to infection,” he says.

“But I bet someone can no longer tell by just looking at me that I am living with HIV.”

Yemurai, which means “admire” in the Shona language, runs a small herbal shop and counselling centre inside a furniture store in downtown Harare catering mainly to the urban poor.

Years of runaway inflation in Zimbabwe have sent drug prices through the roof with the price of one month’s course of anti-retroviral drugs now costs about two million Zimbabwean dollars (about $114)—the equivalent of one month’s salary.

“Imagine the cost for example if four members of the family are HIV-positive,” Kangausaru said. - Sapa-AFP

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