Why that end-of-year visit to the traditional healer could be deadly

22 December 2017 - 11:09 By Dave Chambers
Image: Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network

It’s the time of year when millions of South Africans who have travelled to their rural home for the holidays visit a traditional healer.

And that means it’s also a time when many of them put their mental health at risk‚ according to academics from Wits University and Nashville in the US.

They say people with illnesses known in Tsonga as “mavabyi ya nhloko” (sickness of the head) could even be putting their lives in danger when they delay or interrupt Western health treatment in favour of traditional remedies such as herbal remedies or pigs’ blood.

Sizzy Ngobeni and Ryan Wagner from Wits‚ and Carolyn Audet and Erin Graves from the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health‚ questioned 160 traditional healers in the Bushbuckridge area of Mpumalanga about their treatment practices when it came to mental‚ neurological and substance abuse disorders.

The healers said they had a successful track record with seizure disorders (47%)‚ depression (22%)‚ patients who have lost touch with reality (47%)‚ paralysis on one side of the body (59%) and substance abuse (21%).

Writing in the journal PLOS ONE‚ Audet said: “Health care providers have reason to be concerned‚ given the potential negative impact on the prognosis of patients who delay or interrupt allopathic services.

“Patients with untreated seizure disorders risk severe brain injury‚ depression and increased risk of mortality. [By] seeking traditional treatment [they] may be delaying effective biomedical treatment.”

Those diagnosed as having lost touch with reality may have psychosis‚ dementia or bipolar disorder. “Early identification and treatment could improve the lives of many of these patients as these illnesses are associated with high risk of early mortality‚ disability and decreased quality of life and depression.”

As for those suffering paralysis‚ Audet said a delay in seeing a doctor “could result in additional risk of sensory disturbance and vertigo/dizziness if the symptoms were caused by a stroke”.

The cost of traditional treatment — R500 on average for substance abuse‚ R1‚000 for seizures or paralysis and R1‚500 for those who had lost touch with reality — was high compared with free primary health care‚ she said.

But the researchers were not totally dismissive of traditional healers. “Common mental disorders‚ including depression‚ anxiety and social difficulties seem more likely to respond to traditional treatments [than more serious disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia‚” said Audet.