Many people across the city are using the services of traditional healers and traditional medicines (TM) although many do so secretively wary of a certain stigma attached to the practice.
The acceptance by some medical aid societies to refund purchase of TM, however, is bringing people out of the closet and growing the number of both herbal practitioners and sellers. Some organisations are also now accepting traditional healers’ authority to give employees sick leave.
Newspapers are awash with adverts proclaiming the efficacy and effectiveness of these herbs that claim to be able to cure any disease, illness and sickness under the sun.
However, the increase in the number of providers of TM – most trading under exotic names like Dr Songolo, Dr Ali Baba, Dr Zoro, Dr Zathema and Dr Nguni – has drawn mixed reactions from residents. While TM’s popularity has grown, so have questions and concerns about its safety in the face of aggressive marketing.
“If you look at it from a purely medical standpoint, every herb works,” says Edmore SaMushonga, a herbals street vendor plying his trade on Leopold Takawira Street. He says it all has to do with politics, “as there are hidden interests that do not want anything good to come out of traditional minds”.
Dr Bernard Madzima, Ministry of Health and Child Care’s director of family health, distancing himself from local council’s lack of clear and decisive position, told Harare News: “Although the Ministry has an oversight on all health issues in the country Harare City has a health department headed by Dr Mungofa. Please see him.”
After weeks of stonewalling, the new director of health services at Town House, Dr Prosper Chonzi, finally responded saying although council was aware of these actions, they were working on plans to curtail such illegal activities.
“Medicines, whether traditional or modern, are potentially very dangerous if not used properly,” he said. There is need for serious regulation, thus the establishment of the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ).
“Traditional medicines, if not prescribed properly, can lead to serious complications such as acute renal failure, liver failure and death. Again it is illegal for people to sell these. The MCAZ, police and council will continue to confiscate and prosecute illegal sellers of unregistered medicines, be they traditional or modern, for as long as they are being sold on the streets,” he emphasized.
Most of the traditional herbs being sold are reported not to be registered with the MCAZ, responsible for regulating all medicines circulating in the country’s medicines market through a process of registration and authorization.
Gugu Mahlangu, director-general of MCAZ, says that while some TMs are exempt from registration where such medicines are manufactured for distribution by third parties, registration or authorization is required.
“The same principles apply to allopathic medicines that are compounded in practice settings and administered to patients, but this is now a rare practice,” she said.
“The Authority has authorized the distribution of some herbal preparations that would be considered complementary medicines, provided they make no claims to cure any disease or defect.” He explained that minimal testing is carried on such preparations.
A local herbalist operating from the Avenues area defends the practice, saying most so-called side effects from herbs are nothing compared to conventional drugs, though emphasising care in TM use. “Those who use the herbs need to take care with regards to dosages as the effects might be dire. Remember, if people are told to take a teaspoon of the drug, they will take a cup,” he says.
Investigations show that while most of the herbal drugs are locally produced, a significant number have come into the country illegally from countries such as Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa, with others from as far afield as the Far East.
While other experts are urging for strict monitoring and compliance – especially with regards to packaging and labeling on TM that are approved by the Authority – others still insist there’s no harm in TM use.