Pandemic puts Africa's traditional and Western medicine on collision course
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Johannesburg (AFP) –
So you've tested positive for coronavirus and are desperate for a cure.
No problem: just drink your own urine.
This quack remedy from Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the myriad therapies being touted today in Africa as poor people hunt for a virus fix.
Their desperation is combining with faith in traditional medicine, spurring a rush for almost anything claimed to prevent or cure coronavirus, despite stern scientific warnings.
Bogus or dubious concoctions are often the result -- and widely respected traditional healing has been placed on a collision course with Western medicine.
Around the continent, the lengthening list of supposed cures ranges from ginger and lemons to tree bark, secret herbs and -- as suggested by the self-described herbalist in the DRC -- drinking one's urine.
Even presidents have joined the bandwagon.
Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina this week unveiled a concoction prepared with artemisia, a plant with proven efficacy in malaria treatment.
"This herbal tea gives results in seven days," he said as he sipped a dose.
"I will be the first to drink this today, in front of you, to show you that this product cures and does not kill."
Such claims fly in the face of warnings from mainstream scientists, who say there is no known cure for coronavirus and urge rigorous testing to prove the effectiveness -- and safety -- of the proposed traditional cures.
Those urging vigilance include the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) and US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which says: "There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure the illness caused by COVID-19. In fact, some of them may not be safe to consume."
But with a conventional cure still elusive, and fears pervasive, African herbalists are keen to fill the void.
One traditional practitioner in the DRC, Gabriel Nsombila, is running adverts on a local radio station.
"Inhaling the vapour of a mixture of mango tree bark, papaya leaves, ginger and a plant whose name I will keep secret is a certain cure for people suffering from coronavirus," Nsombila told AFP.
"All those who come to my house leave cured," he said, without stating how many he has treated.
In Cameroon, naturopathic doctor Anselme Kouam said a simple infusion of garlic or ginger, with some mint extract boiled in water, then poured into a bowl, would do the trick.
"Lower your head closer to the bowl, cover it with a blanket and inhale. It clears the airways and it's effective against this virus," he said, but admitted that he had yet to administer this to a coronavirus patient.
Some of the touted remedies have proven fatal.
The UN Radio Okapi reported last month that three children in DRC died after their mother administered a medicinal plant believed to prevent contamination by the virus.
- Seeking a role -
Despite such headline-making incidents, traditional practitioners say they have something useful to offer in the fight against coronavirus.
But, some complain, they are being marginalised by health officials trained in Western medicine.
In South Africa, herbalist Makelani Bantu claims he makes a cure-it-all fruit-and-vegetable juice.
But, he says, the authorities have yet to respond to his offer to validate it by giving it to patients.
"We are not even given a chance to say something," he told AFP by phone from his home in Pretoria.
"We are raising hands to say, 'guys we have something better,'... (but) there is no one who is listening to us.
"There is no solution for COVID-19. Our own natural way of healing should be tried."
Sorel Eta, a Congolese ethnologist, said the knowledge of indigenous Pygmies could be precious.
"They have always treated diseases with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. It's time to go and consider indigenous pharmacopoeia, because it is very rich. Let's not overlook them," Eta said.
In Benin, traditional healer and voodoo high priest Bokonon Azonyihoues and his colleagues are hard at work -- researching.
"We don't make any noise about it, but given the powerlessness of modern medicine, the solution could come from traditional therapists. We are working on it," he told AFP.
"Chloroquine has been mentioned" as a potential medicine for coronavirus, he said, referring to a veteran anti-malaria drug.
"But... we have plants that are 10 times more effective than chloroquine in treating malaria."
- 'Nothing excluded' -
Phephsile Maseko, coordinator of South Africa's 78,000-member Traditional Healers' Organization (THO), said "we're pushing" the government for a role in the campaign against the pandemic.
But, Maseko said, "It's a struggle."
The health authorities, for their part, insist they have not slammed the door on traditional medicine.
"We are open. Nothing is excluded. All those who can provide a scientific response, including traditional treaters, are welcome," said Georges Etoundi Mballa, director of disease control at Cameroon's health ministry.
"We have set up a scientific committee where everyone can express themselves."
South African health ministry spokesman Pop Maja said the department receives around a dozen calls a day from people claiming to have a COVID-19 cure.
The government recognises the role of traditional healers, he said.
But at the moment it is asking them to get the message across about prevention rather than promising treatments.
"We truly respect their role, (there is) a signficant amount of people who consult them, we cannot overlook that," he told AFP.
"But right now there is no cure, we know there is no cure for coronavirus."
© 2020 AFP