Treating HIV/AIDS: growing tensions over traditional medicine, medical science

Some South Africans are receiving incorrect guidance from families and fraudulent traditional healers, advising them to discontinue antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in favour of African traditional treatment. The concern is that traditional medicine has not been sufficiently tested using clinical trials, and the health benefits remain scientifically inconclusive. It is also reported that fake healers claim to provide cures for HIV/AIDS.

John Robbie spoke to Dr. Yogan Pillay, Deputy Director General at the Department of Health as well as practicing traditional healer and President of the South African Traditional Healers Association, Sazi Mhlongo.

Pillay encourages people to continue their ARV treatment, as HIV is a chronic disease. Mhlongo advised that traditional healers will only administer supplementary medicine to clients, but will never advise them to discontinue ARV treatment.

It is sensitive but we need to figure out how the two healing systems can work harmoniously together. Clearly we don’t want to be disrespectful of traditional healing systems, but we need to figure out how best to make them co-exist.

Dr. Yogan Pillay

Testing and research

Pillay agreed that there is need for greater testing and regulation by the Medicines Control Council. He said that modes for testing traditional medicine need to be established and that more South African research is needed on the matter. He advised that Western medicine procedures are standardized and that similar measures must be put into place to test if traditional medicines are safe and effective.

Clinical trials and collaborations

As it turns out there are tests and experiments and clinical trials underway using traditional medicine. The medical research council together with the University of the Western Cape have some trials going on. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has an interest in pursuing this.

Dr. Yogan Pillay

The scales of the clinical trials are not pitched at the same level as Western medicine, but there are some trials going on. According to Pillay greater effort is needed to get traditional healers to be part of the clinical trial process and to share details of the ingredients used in their medicines. However, he noted that there is often a reluctance to do this because of concerns around intellectual property.

Fraudulent healers

Mhlongo says that the problem is that there are people who claim to be traditional healers when in fact they are not. Some of these imposters suggest that they can cure HIV/AIDS and others concoct so-called ‘cures’, mixing ARV tablets with their herbs. The traditional healer said that they do not dispense traditional medicine mixed with any other drugs.

Traditional healers have been instructed not to tell people to drop ARVs. But the inauthentic healers say all sorts of things and that gives us a very bad name. There are those that are just mushrooming – charlatans.

According to Mhlongo, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, traditional healers were previously trained, examined and given practicing licenses. It has now become difficult to discern qualified healers from impostors.

He says the association has urged the government to investigate these matters and the Council of Traditional Healers will also undertake to investigate as well.

Listen to the full conversation below:

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