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High hospital costs forces Zimbabweans to go traditional
by Tim Chigodo
CAPA 040504-6
May 4, 2004

[CAPA - Central Africa] The high cost of treatment and increased illnesses following the advent of the AIDS pandemic, is forcing many Zimbabweans to seek the services of traditional healers.

There is now increased awareness and recognition of traditional medicine. Arguments in favour of this mode of treatment are a legion and more compelling in the country.

Traditional healers, locally referred to as Ng’angas, are making booming business, as their drugs are cheaper than modern medicine and are widely available in practically most communities. Religious healers also attract huge numbers of sick people.

Traditional healing forms part of the Zimbabwean culture and the practitioners are highly regarded and socially sanctioned with a wide clientele. Those seeking services of church healers are mostly Christians of the apostolic faith.

As the demand for traditional medicines increases, Zimbabwe has plans to protect and promote the growing of indigenous rich herbs in the country. The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association (ZINATHA) has already put in place a programme to commercialise plant-based products, referred to as green pharmaceuticals.

Presently, quite substantial amounts of traditional processed herbal medicines are finding their way to Europe, while the realised gains on the local scene are minimal.

President of ZINATHA, Prof. Gordon Chavunduka, says the project was undertaken after realising that the country was endowed with a favourable climate for a wide range of herbal plants, some of which have been used by communities to treat ailments for over a century.

The government wants local healers to move from traditional to commercial use of herbal medicines because of the growing market. However, church healers rarely charge any fees although sometimes they are paid in kind.
Research has found out that with proper knowledge and enabling structures, the healers could benefit financially from the export of herbal products.

The market for herbal cosmetics, perfumes, condiments and confectioneries has experienced an upward trend in business.

Zimbabwe has a rich bio-diversity and wealth of indigenous knowledge on plant life, and therefore has the potential to emerge as one of the producers of herbal products.

Experts say the government and stakeholders should consolidate past gains of traditional knowledge base to start developing new herbal preparations on Zimbabwe’s bio-diversity and make the products available to the international community.

There is growing need to recognise that the country has a weak physical infrastructure and inadequate documentation. This, coupled with poor public awareness and delays in framing policies, is hurting the country.

The project is a complement to recent efforts by the Ministry of Environmental and Tourism, which is collaborating with ZINATHA. The organisation has several botanical gardens around the country, where herbalists are trained on sustaining indigenous plants that have medicinal value.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged African governments to formally recognise traditional medicine and create an enabling environment for its practice. The call was made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Ebrahim Samba, in a message on the occasion of the first African Traditional Medicine Day, observed across Africa last year.

Dr Samba noted that for centuries, traditional medicine played a crucial role in combating multiple and complex conditions affecting Africans, and that because of its popularity, accessibility and affordability, more than 80 percent of the people in the region continued to rely on it for their health care needs.

He urged countries to invest in research and development to validate claims on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicines. The states should also keep documentation of inventories of effective traditional medicine practices with evidence of safety, efficacy and quality.
They should also engage in the large-scale cultivation and conservation of medicinal, and the protection of intellectual property rights.

Dr Samba said governments and people in the region should promote and institute measures to nurture and manage the use of traditional medicine for two principal reasons.

First, most Africans have recourse to both traditional and modern medicine for their health care needs due to cultural acceptance and belief, and, secondly, the average ratio of traditional health practitioners to the population to medical doctors in the region is 1:25,000 to 1:200 respectively.