On Freethinkers’ Night this month, we’re going to tackle Alternative Medicine.
In Western culture, alternative medicine is any healing practice "that does not fall within the realm of conventional medicine",or "that which has not been shown consistently to be effective." In some instances, it is based on historical or cultural traditions, rather than a scientific (e.g. evidence-based) basis. Critics assert that the terms “complementary” and “alternative medicine” are deceptive euphemisms meant to give an impression of medical authority.Richard Dawkins has stated that "there is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work."
The American National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) studies examples including naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, meditation,yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, homeopathy, acupuncture, and nutritional-based therapies, in addition to a range of other practices.
One common criticism of alternative medicine from the scientific community is that many of these therapies tend to show results no different from what you would get by administering placebos. (A placebo is a substance containing no medication and prescribed or given to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well.)
Placebos do not have any direct pharmacological effect on a patient, and is often given to the control group in experiments when testing the efficacy of a drug during clinical trials:
In one common placebo procedure, however, a patient is given an inert pill, told that it may improve his/her condition, but not told that it is in fact inert. Such an intervention may cause the patient to believe the treatment will change his/her condition; and this belief may produce a subjective perception of a therapeutic effect, causing the patient to feel their condition has improved. This phenomenon is known as the placebo effect.
The scientific approach to evaluating the pharmacological efficacy of a drug or particular medical treatment is by subjecting it to randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies, whose results should be published in a journal. The studies should then be replicated by independent parties, in order to corroborate the results.
ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE IN UGANDA
Many forms of alternative medicine thrive in Uganda. The most obvious one is, of course, traditional herbal medicine.
There seems to be some good scientific evidence that some of these herbal remedies actually work, for example those used in the treatment of malaria.
In Uganda there exists an organisation that speaks on behalf of all traditional healers in Uganda, known as, the National Council of Traditional Healers and Herbalists Association of Uganda (NACOTHA). From their website:
A large proportion of the population in a number of developing countries, still rely on traditional practitioners including traditional midwives, herbalists and bone-setters, and on local medicinal plants to satisfy their primary health care needs. In Uganda, there is at least one traditional health practitioner for every 200-400 people compared to one orthodox medical practitioner for every 10,000 people. The World Health Organization estimates that traditional midwives assist in up to 95% of all rural births and 70% of urban births in developing countries. The reason for such reliance on traditional medicine is its accessibility and affordability in comparison with allopathic medicine. Eighty percent of the population in Uganda will resort to traditional medical practitioners for their health problems because of its cost effectiveness, local availability, and synergistic activities. Moreover, not only can traditional medicine be properly used in cases of communicable diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and in maternal health through traditional midwifery, it also plays a role in this country where people are becoming affected by non-communicable, chronic illnesses and diseases, such as type II diabetes and high blood pressure as the result of adopting a western lifestyle. Therefore, a correct use of such therapies and practices could very well lead to the self-socioeconomic and cultural development of African people worldwide.Traditional healers, encouraged and sensitized by NACOTHA are now documenting and recording their findings on medicinal plants, disease prevention, management and research.
There is, unfortunately, a thin line between practicing herbal medicine and mysticism/divination (sometimes referred to as juju, or witchcraft), with many local herbal mediciners known to be dabbling in the latter from time to time to complement their herbal business. The unfortunate result of this blurring of the lines is that, on account of certain herbal medicines registering some effectiveness in dealing with certain ailments, unsuspecting people will also go on to believe the more outlandish claims of mystical power made by these practitioners.
Seemingly cognizant of this fact, an organisation called Uganda Traditional Healers Association (it is not clear if they are they are affiliated to NACOTHA), in 2008, called on the government to come up with a regulatory policy that would require “all traditional healers are registered by address and specialty in order to avoid activities of masqueraders.”
It would appear from this that the herbalists would like the public, and especially the government, to see a distinction between their activities and those of the mystics/diviners. This distinction, sadly, is never really clear, and many Ugandans often take it for granted that the two are the same. This can be seen from what we ourselves witnessed recently, when a diviner was invited to help someone catch a car thief. The diviner in question did use herbs as part of his ‘magical’ concoction.
The correlation between traditional herbal medicine and divination therefore remains very strong in the minds of many in Uganda, and much of Africa.
On a related note, a faith healer in Loliondo (Tanzania) called Ambilikile Mwasapile, is currently making news headlines for serving a mysterious herbal concoction to thousands of desperate people, and allegedly curing them from all manner of diseases.
The exposure that this retired Evangelical Lutheran pastor has received in the local media has prompted many Ugandans to consider crossing the border into Tanzania in order to receive treatment from him.
According to the Tanzanian Minister of Health, tests are now being conducted to see if Mwasapile’s herbal concoction has any medicinal properties.
Just last week, Uganda’s Ministry of Health, outlawed a form of alternative medical therapy known as reflexology. The New Vision reports:
The Government has ordered the closure of reflexology centres all over the country. It has also banned reflexology practitioners and quacks who call themselves doctors and professors and administer herbal concoctions to patients.
The report goes into the reasons that went into banning reflexology:
Announcing the ban yesterday, health minister Dr. Stephen Mallinga said a study had shown that practices in the reflexology centres could be putting unsuspecting patients’ lives at risk.
Reflexology is a physical technique of applying pressure to reflex points on the feet and hands using thumb, finger and hand without the use of oil or lotion.
Though the ministry does not know the actual number of reflexology centres in the country, it said they were estimated to be over 100.
Mallinga said the study had also discovered that those practicing reflexology were not trained, used medical tools they had no knowledge of and claimed to treat all ailments, including cancer.
He said many perform procedures, including enema and drawing blood, which he said, could endanger a patient’s life through perforation of the intestines and spread HIV/AIDS.
The minister added that many deaths could be attributed to those practicing reflexology because they delayed patients from seeking proper medical health care with promises of curing them.
Well done, Dr. Mallinga and team!
But please don’t stop there. Medical quackery runs rife in Uganda!
Strange signs like these are all over the streets of Kampala
And then there is the (in)famous Bio Disk:Join us on Thursday
Many people, out of desperation, are trying out all kinds of unconventional medical modalities in order to recover from various illnesses afflicting them. In this month’s Freethinkers’ Night, we want to look at the viability of alternative forms of medicine such as acupuncture, homeopathy, traditional herbal medicine, herbal food supplements, the bio-disk, and others.
Do they work? Are they all a sham? What does the scientific literature say?
How should we be evaluating the testimonies of those who claim to have benefited from such treatments to know if they are true?
All these and related issues will be explored at this month’s meeting.
If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are welcome to join us at the meeting.
The March 2011 Freethinkers’ Night is going to take place on Thursday, 31st March at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant, Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.
Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part III – Alternative Medicine, by Steven Novella
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