Unconventional is the real norm

You have a bit of a cough, night sweats and a searing headache every now and again. So, what’s the diagnosis?

Well, the healthcare practitioner either needs to throw the bones, wash in the blood of a sacrificed animal or recognise a sign given by a long-departed ancestor before a proper diagnosis can be made.

This may sound alien to many Mail & Guardian readers, but to the majority of South Africans it is normal. Research conducted by the Pietermaritzburg Institute of Natural Resources found that 84% of South Africans consult a sangoma more than three times a year.

Looking further afield, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 80% of the population of the African continent uses traditional medicine as their primary source of healthcare and so do more than 65% of the world’s population.

Traditional medicine, complementary and alternative medicine also fall under the category of non-conventional medicine. Among the many different types the most common include traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, osteopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, homeopathy, therapeutic reflexology, therapeutic aromatherapy and Ayurvedic medicine.

These alternative medicines enjoy a unique status in South Africa, which is one of the few countries in the world to promote the integration of non-conventional medicine with its conventional counterpart.

It stems from the ANC’s National Health Plan of 1994, which stated: “Traditional healing will become an integral and recognised part of healthcare in South Africa. Consumers will be allowed to choose whom to consult for their healthcare and legislation will be changed to facilitate controlled use of traditional practitioners.”

After a rocky passage through parliamentary and legal structures, the Traditional Medicines Act was signed into law in 2007. It states that all healthcare practitioners must be registered to practice and that they must have achieved a minimum standard of training at an institution accredited by the relevant council set up by the department of health.

Regulatory councils are responsible for the registration of practitioners, the establishment of educational standards for registration and the general regulation of healthcare professions.

The Traditional Health Practitioners Act classifies traditional healers as:

  • Diviners (izangoma/amagqirha;
  • Herbalists (Izinyanga/amaxhwele);
  • Prophets/faith-healers (abaprofeti/abathandazeli);
  • Traditional surgeons (iingcibi); and
  • Traditional birth attendants (ababelethisi/abazalisi).

There are less than 190 000 traditional medicine practitioners in South Africa, but considerably more than the 27 500 or so doctors and specialists. The WHO is also promoting the use of traditional and non-conventional medicine, where appropriate, in underdeveloped countries. Its strategy is to promote the safety, efficacy and quality of alternative products and practices.

It seems that globally various national health systems are also taking a closer look at alternative medicine. The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, continue to promote its uses. In China medical students still need to study traditional Chinese medicine for one year as part of their conventional medical course. In India medical students also spend one year studying traditional medicine.

The one big question concerning unconventional medicine remains: do they really work? The greater proportion of the world’s population certainly seems to think so. In developed countries, such as France and Germany, 30% to 40% of all medical doctors rely on herbal preparations as their primary medicines. In a 2002 survey conducted by the National Centre for Health Statistics 74,6% of adults claimed to have used some form of unconventional medicine.

Traditional medicine will be the topic of Bonitas Housecall at 9am on Saturday April 2 on SABC2

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