In west Africa, trust in traditional herbalists significantly worsened the outlook in the unprecedented Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015. In Tanzania, authorities banned witch doctors entirely after years of attacks on the nation’s “magical” albino population. Now Kenya has taken a bold new move in eradicating the practice of unlicensed medicine: letting certified physicians advertise their services in public.
The government announced the move in February, following years in which doctors were not allowed to advertise for fear of promoting themselves dishonestly or giving the impression that they were more interested in profiting from their practice than the wellbeing of patients. Doctors officially became eligible to advertise their services at the turn of the month in March; prior to that, they faced up to one year in prison for buying advertising in publications or posting advertisements on local boards or street posts.
“The advertisements will mainly be allowing doctors and specialists to make Kenyans aware about the services they offer and not about praising themselves because that will go against professional ethics,” the National Chairman of the Kenyan Medical Assocaition, Dr. Elly Nyaim, said in February. He noted that, because the Kenyan government has no agency to regulate the herbalist industry, they have long been free to compete directly with doctors and have succeeded in keeping their industry’s popularity high.
While not all herbalists are witch doctors — that is to say, openly claiming to use supernatural powers to treat their patients — all use non-traditional means to heal the sick, often using plants and natural resources unproven to combat the illnesses they face. Those who claim to have magical powers also offer services to fix social problems and help patients with romantic or financial issues.
The BBC’s Joseph Warungu notes that herbalist advertisements remained as popular as ever in Kenya this week. “As long as there are marriages to be rescued, football games to be won and businesses to be resuscitated, the healers are here to stay,” he writes, quoting some common advertisements:
Is your husband falling out of love? Come and see me and I shall give you the cure to capture his love permanently.
If you’re struggling with a terrible disease that no doctor can cure, come to me, I can help you.
The Kenyan medical board has, in addition to allowing advertisements for doctors, vowed to “deny the title of ‘doctor’ to anyone not examined and reviewed by the board but who purports to cure certain illnesses.” Doctors, the head of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union, are increasingly frustrated with trying to cure illnesses exacerbated by herbalists. “Sometimes the public don’t know who is a genuine doctor and who is a quack … the media gives prominence to these herbalists who claim they can cure serious illnesses in no time at all, yet when things go wrong doctors get the blame,” Secretary General Dr. Ouma Oluga says.
This is not the first move Kenyan officials have made to curb witch doctor practices. In October, the city of Mombasa moved to remove all witch doctor and herbalist advertising from the city. “All the posters advertising witch doctors should be removed immediately and all those who are in the business be arrested. The posters are an eyesore and not good for tourism as well as for children,” County Commissioner Nelson Marwa said of the advertising.
Herbalists continue to advocate for their right to practice, however, even calling for the government to give them prominent roles in treating complex illnesses such as cancer. “I treat at least one cancer patient daily, the only challenge is they perceive our help as a last resort, thus giving us hard time, but we still have several success stories,” Shadrack Moimet, an herbalist, said following the delivery of a letter to Kenya’s chief executive calling for the government to promote herbalists.
African governments in general have begun targeting herbalists and attempting to eradicate the practice due to two major recent trends that have significant hurt Africans: the role witch doctors played in exacerbating west Africa’s Ebola outbreak last year, and the growing popularity of hunting and killing albino people to use their bodies in potions in southern Africa, particularly in Uganda and Tanzania.
Tanzania banned witch doctors entirely in January 2015, after the recent wave of legislative elections had partially triggered a spike in attacks on Tanzania’s unusually large albino population. Hunters seeking handsome payments for their work identified, targeted, and attacked albinos with machetes, hoping to take witch doctors whatever body part they could steal from their victims. Election seasons trigger an increase in attacks because only wealthy Africans can afford the exorbitant prices witch doctors place on albino potions. In Uganda, the government had to explicitly warn politicians that cooking albino meat would not help them fare better at the polls.
The herbalists targeted in west Africa by government officials, unlike those prompting violence against albinos, were often the victims of their own craft. There is no official estimate of the number of witch doctors and herbalists who died trying to treat Ebola virus contamination without knowing what they were facing, but officials believe it to be high. The International Federation of the Red Cross, in a post urging cooperation between medical professionals and herbalists, notes that those who survived Ebola in Liberia have learned to keep their distance from patients.
“I don’t touch any patient and respect a distance. If I notice that they have a fever, I recommend they go to the health post,” Zwana L. Dunnah, an herbalist in Garmaymu, Liberia, says. Community efforts to have healers tell villagers that they can and should trust doctors improved the rate of finding and containing Ebola cases in Liberia, after months of attempts of contacting Ebola-hit areas. In many parts of Liberia and Guinea, residents believed international aid workers were the source of Ebola, not in town to cure it, and often attacked ambulances with rocks or simply ran away.
Guinea has seen less success than Liberia in engaging local communities. It is also experience a second wave of Ebola cases. In the village of Makoidou, where a fifth person died of Ebola this week, villagers fled upon the sight of doctors. “When the villagers realized that the test conducted by our health teams on the man were positive, they all fled into the bush,” an official told Reuters. The village is a ghost town, with hundreds of potential Ebola patients on the loose.