Champions of traditional medicine on Tuesday told a major conference on AIDS in Africa that they had much to contribute to the war against the devastating epidemic.
Speakers at the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) claimed two herbal remedies were safer and cheaper alternatives to the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to treat people living with HIV and AIDS.
Such people number almost 30 million in Africa, and for many of them, especially in rural areas, traditional healers are the first port of call in the case of illness.
Only about one percent of Africans who need them currently have access to antiretrovirals, and as dramatically falling prices are set to increase that proportion, there is much debate about whether the continent's healthcare infrastructure is up to the job of proper and sustained delivery of the drugs.
"We have tested, and we have seen that it works well," Erick Gbodossou, the president of the Senegal-based Prometra, an association of traditional healers, said of Metrafaids, a treatment made from five plants.
A three-year study, funded by the Ford Foundation, of the treatment was conducted using modern scientific observation methods.
According to Prometra, trials on 62 HIV-positive individuals aged 18 to 58 over the last four years showed that Metrafaids reduced the presence of the HIV virus in the body and boosted CD4 lymphocites, an important element of the immune system.
"We think that this medicine deserves to be supported, because it can help in this battle, in this reality that's going to exterminate this continent," Gbodossou said, adding that no adverse side effects had been recorded.
Without funding, "we will just keep helping people on a small scale," he added.
The beneficial effects of herbal preparations as an HIV treatment also impressed Tony Johnson, a doctor from New Zealand who has spent many years living in Kenya.
Forty-five HIV-positive people "in a very sorry state of health" living in the sprawling Nairobi slum of Kibera were treated with Taibao, a chinese infusion said to boost immunity.
"I see some potential beyond any shadow of doubt in this particular product … in the treatment of opportunistic infections," Johnson told conference delegates.
When compared to ARV treatment, "my experience is that (herbal products in general) have been far more effective and far more rapid in their action and that they generate a far more comfortable patient," he added.
"Much more work, however, needs to be done with these products, and the tragedy of our time is that so much money is being devoted to antitretroviral treatment… without acknowledging the potential of herbal remedies.
"You must understand that the solution to HIV may lie not within a chemical laboratory but within nature," Johnson concluded.
Gitura Mwaura, the chairman of the Kenyan Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines lobby group, was also encouraged by Taibao.
"I have it on good authority from coalition doctors that the herbs are known to be doing a good job," he told AFP by telephone.
"We know traditional medicine people are helping a lot in rural villages, where there is little access to modern healthcare," he added.
"We certainly need to have mainstream doctors liaise with them," he said.
A view shared by Oscar Motsumi, a programme officer with the Botswanan health ministry who worked on a study of more than 1,200 traditional doctors in his country, where some 35.4 percent of the population carry the HIV virus.
"We need a dialogue between the two based on mutual trust… This is no longer a competition. People are dying out there," he told AFP at the conference.
In 2002, the AIDS epidemic killed some 2.4 million people in Africa, according to UN figures.
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