Covid-19: This is the role traditional medicine practitioners can play - health dept

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Traditional healer Mkhulu Zama Ndebele sitting inside his indumba [shrine] ahead of a consultation.
Traditional healer Mkhulu Zama Ndebele sitting inside his indumba [shrine] ahead of a consultation.
PHOTO: Nomvelo Chalumbira
  • Traditional healers should refer a patient to the next level of care if they present with symptoms of Covid-19.
  • Claims that the majority of South Africans prefer traditional healers over a medical doctor are yet to be proven.
  • Academics are of the view that it is too early to determine the healing potency of indigenous plants in the fight against Covid-19.

The Department of Health says the message to traditional health practitioners (THP) is to refer patients to the next level of care if they present symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

As the country fights the Covid-19 pandemic, the department says it is only an assumption – yet to be proven – that the majority of South Africans opt to see traditional healers before going to a medical doctor.

In 2017, researchers at fact-checking organisation AfricaCheck.org found the claim that 80% of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers was false.

"THPs play an important role in addressing the burden of diseases in South Africa within the primary healthcare system.

"The message to THPs is to refer patients presenting with symptoms of coronavirus infection to the next level of care," health department spokesperson Popo Maja told News24.

The department has further placed on record that it values the contributions of THPs in the fight against Covid-19.

The role of traditional health practitioners in the fight against Covid-19 – guidelines stated by the department as follows:
  • Triaging and referral of patients to the appropriate levels of care;
  • Public health education and fighting claims of a cure for Covid-19 without scientific evidence, fake news and myths to the communities and the clients. This is in order to contribute towards the reduction of the infections;
  • Advise and provide guidance about infection prevention and control measures;
  • Contribute towards the dissemination of public health awareness messages;
  • Educate community on the importance of personal hygiene;
  • Provide necessary counselling to patients;
  • Postpone all rituals, ceremonies such as graduations, initiation schools and events organised for pursuing the rites of passage and other similar activities that requires a number of participants, and put in place alternative systems to mitigate the requirements; and
  • Work with the team from the Department of Health in the screening and messaging.

There is currently no cure for the coronavirus.

The department says traditional medicines/indigenous plants are not excluded from the search for treatments.

"There is goodwill and intention to explore the value of traditional medicines in the fight against Covid-19. There are several scientific institutions (including the South African Medical Research Council) that are involved in the development of a vaccine and trials."

READ | Science and innovation dept to research traditional medicine for Covid-19 fight

"The research work involving traditional medicines/indigenous plants is still in the early stages," Maja explained.

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande revealed on Wednesday the department had reassigned R15 million from existing indigenous knowledge projects to support Covid-19 interventions.

Could a cure for Covid-19 be found in indigenous plants? Academics weigh in

Lecturer and PhD candidate in Public Health Pharmacy at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Mncengeli Sibanda, says it is too early to tell whether indigenous plants could have a healing potency to treat the virus.

Sibanda mentioned that countries, such as China and Madagascar, have announced traditional remedies with purported benefits against the virus.

"The effectiveness and safety of the traditional medicines against Covid-19 still needs to be tested using randomised clinical trials.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), at an international level, and the government of South Africa, at a local level, are working with many stakeholders and research institutions to select vaccines and medicines, including traditional medicines products, which can be investigated for clinical efficacy and safety for Covid-19 treatment," he explained.

The claims for the use of traditional products from China and Madagascar, so far, do not meet the minimum requirements of a randomised clinical trial, according to the academic.

"Larger scale clinical trials have to be carried out before we can conclusively say that these traditional medicines can be used to treat Covid-19," he added.

'Controlled' experiments

Collet Dandara, professor of human genetics and the principal investigator of the pharmacogenomics and drug metabolism research group at the University of Cape Town, says that, while there is currently no cure for Covid-19, some of the milder symptoms presented by Covid-19 are regularly treated by indigenous plants.

"Nothing is known about the potency of therapeutic drugs as well as herbal medicines on the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19. However, there are herbal medicines that have been reported to combat Covid-19 symptoms, such as coughs, loss of appetite, fever and diarrhoea," Dandara said.

Dandara further highlighted that, while it is commendable that significant funding is being poured into therapeutic drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir and remdesivir, there is little to no attention on the study of herbal medicines.

Dandara said: 

We can only know if herbal medicines have a healing potency towards Covid-19 through 'controlled' experiments, just as is done with therapeutic drugs.

"We need to unleash scientific knowledge into studying herbal medicine to prove if they can work on Covid-19 and any other diseases," he said.

Due to a lack of dedicated research of products in the herbal medicine field, Dandara is of the view that any untested therapeutic drug or herbal medicine cannot be recommended during this global pandemic.

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