Many South Africans still prefer to consult traditional healers for health advice and treatment rather than visiting a medical doctor or clinic. The role of traditional healers in providing advice in response to HIV and AIDS is therefore vitally important.
Studies have shown that as many as 70 per cent of our population depends on traditional medicine for primary healthcare, said President Jacob Zuma.
Talking during the recent opening of new test laboratories at the South African Bureau of Standards, President Zuma called for a speeding up of the standardisation of African traditional medicine.
He said the country needed to establish a national standard regarding traditional medicines and to improve the quality control of traditional medicines.
In recognising the important role played by traditional healers in the health care of South Africans, government, through the Department of Health, provides the healers with training. It includes recognising the symptoms of HIV and AIDS, ways to prevent the spread of the disease and counselling of patients who are HIV-positive.
Traditional healers now encourage their patients to consult healthcare centres for proper diagnosis. They provide counselling and support and ensure that patients take their antiretrovirals (ARVs) regularly.
Speaking to Vuk’uzenzele, Traditional Healers Organisation National Coordinator Phephisile Maseko pointed out that the counselling of patients had become part of the curriculum for traditional healers. This included advice on preventing HIV and encouraging patients to respect their bodies.
Maseko highlights the importance of building trust between a patient and a healer. “If she tells you she is vomiting, has an ulcer, losing weight, has a sore throat and joints, I first ask her, where is your partner?
“I speak with her nicely and tell her that there is another health solution we can embark on. I advise her to go to the clinic for proper diagnosis and assure her that there’s nothing wrong with Western medicine.”
As a result of trusting each other, patients confide in Maseko once they’ve received the results. She then invites people from organisations with whom she works to explain the importance of taking ARVs and the side effects.
“We work in partnership with the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS, as well as health workers, including retired nurses and community health workers. But I only choose people who respect others and know how to speak with patients. As a result, there is only a seven per cent default rate among my patients, because we constantly consult with them.
“We make ourselves available for support and when they encounter problems, they can call us anytime. We encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle and they soon recover, with some of them even introducing us to their employers,” Maseko says.