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Reuters New Media
Traditional Healers Demand Role in AIDS Battle
Patricia Reaney
July 12, 2000
DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - Up to 100 traditional healers chanted and danced to the sounds of African drums Wednesday as they marched to the 13th International AIDS Conference to demand a role in battling the disease.

While delegates presented the latest scientific findings in Durban's high-tech conference center and drugs companies displayed an arsenal of weapons that can suppress but not destroy the HIV virus, healers dressed in African robes and animal skins said they could help where modern medicine has so far failed.

They don't claim to have a cure, but they said they could play a part in preventing the spread of the virus and in treating the infections that kill sufferers.

"Traditional medicine can deal with the opportunistic sicknesses that arise from HIV/AIDS. It has a role to play there," said Credo Mutwa, a South African sangoma, or holy man.

"Until the white scientists can come up with a vaccine or cure we must fight this disease."

First Port Of Call For Most Africans

For the majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa where 24.5 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, traditional healers are the first port of call for most people.

"We know that 90 percent of people go first to traditional healers. It is difficult in Africa to promote any health systems when they don't involve traditional healers," said Erick Gbodossou, a Senegalese healer and head of Prometra, an international organization promoting traditional medicine. In addition to promoting safe sex, Gbodossou said the plants, herbs, animal skins and bones healers use in their medicines and rituals can improve the quality of life for people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

"Modern medicine cannot find a solution alone. We need to bring together our common knowledge to find a solution to fight this pandemic. This is our goal," he added.

Noerine Kaleeba, of UNAIDS and the founder of an AIDS support group in Uganda, said that like it or not traditional healers command authority in communities.

UNAIDS, the UN agency charged with fighting the epidemic, is already reaching out to traditional healers.

"One of the elements UNAIDS is taking up really aggressively is working with countries to define a process through which traditional healers can be brought officially onboard," she told Reuters.

An important lesson UNAIDS has learned in Uganda is that there has to be a process through which the mutual suspicion between western-trained doctors and traditional healers can be broken.

"Traditional healers are very willing to learn and they are very willing to be partners providing there is an environment of mutual respect," she added.