- Last week, South African lawmakers decided to formally recognise the trade of traditional healers. This week, the government of both Nigeria and Uganda have announced plans to regulate this large informal health sector. Also the World Health Organisation (WHO) is slowly recognising the need to regulate traditional African medicine, which has more followers than Western medicine in Africa.
According to Nigeria's Minister of Health, Professor Eyitayo Lambo, a draft traditional medicine policy is "to be released soon." Minister Lambo said that the Ministry accords traditional medicine "top priority because of the popularity of the practice among Nigerians." It is believed that Nigeria holds more traditional healers than medics with an education in Western medicine.
Ugandan authorities this week made similar statements. Kampala is in the process of defining its policy towards traditional healers by creating a legal framework with an aim of establishing a parallel health sector. Also Ugandan Health Ministry officials quote the great popularity of traditional healers, estimating that almost two thirds of the country's inhabitants use their services regularly.
Nigeria and Uganda will be following South African lawmakers' efforts to make the traditional medicine sector safer for patients while at the same time raising its prestige. In South Africa, traditional healers will have to register with the government, giving them rights to treat diseases and discomforts even by issuing sick leaves. They will however be barred from treating life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
African government hope to improve their control of the often chaotic informal health sector, where treatments often are based on herbs and/or spiritual services. Some healers have been accused of putting their patients or others in danger, for example by urging AIDS patients to have unprotected sex with virgin girls. Regulations would open for control mechanism.
At the same time, Africa's traditional health sector is a thriving industry employing large numbers of people and making use of local resources. Only in South Africa, an estimated 200,000 traditional healers currently operate and the industry is estimated to have an annual turnover of about Rand 250 million. The Ugandan Health Ministry estimates there are around 150,000 traditional healers operating in the country.
Herbs used by African traditional healers in many cases have been rediscovered by Western medicine, as pharmaceutical multinationals in most cases claim intellectual property rights on healing agents known for generations in Africa. In North America and Europe, traditional medicines are a booming import market, which could well be served by African producers in the future, if an indigenous industry is created, based on traditional wisdom.
Thus, both the Nigerian and Ugandan Health Ministries are emphasising on intellectual property rights for practitioners when developing new traditional health regulations. Nigeria's Ministry of Health announced it was to pay "considerable attention to such areas as research and development" and cooperate with the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD).
Also the government of Uganda emphasises on the potentials of uniting traditional herbal wisdom with indigenous medical research. Herbal research and treatments are to become major studies at Uganda's medical school at Makerere University. Now it was essential to strengthen intellectual property rights legislation, Ugandan authorities have found.
While many African governments are now rediscovering the potential of traditional medicine - both as a health service for the population and as a potential export article - also the African Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is reviewing its policy in this area. According to Nigerian Minister Lambo, his Ministry is closely cooperating with the WHO in its draft traditional medicine policy.
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