Traditional African healing methods have historically been viewed with skepticism among members of the scientific and medical communities. However, that is beginning to change, as traditional healers are giving seminars alongside scientists and doctors at the Pan-African Malaria Conference currently under way in Cameroon.
Near the entrance to the convention center in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, traditional healer Ousmanou Fokounang Adam has set up his table. On it are arranged bottles of his own remedies and plastic bags full of pulverized medicinal plants.
Nearby, Mr. Adam displays his case archives. He's been in the healing business for more than 50 years and has treated around 7,000 patients.
"My father was a traditional healer," he said. "When I started traditional healing studies after my studies in school, I took my investigative tactics to follow real traditional doctors. Then, on my own again, I read scientific books. I go into archives. I go into the forest."
Around 1,500 doctors, scientists, and policy makers are attending the conference. Mr. Adam, a third of whose patients are malaria victims, is giving a seminar on traditional African treatments for the disease, which kills between one and three million people worldwide every year. More and more malaria experts are beginning to look at the benefits of traditional medicine.
"The reason I think it is important to include traditional medicine at a malaria research conference like this is that we are at a point in time where we are rapidly running out of drugs that are affordable and efficient in treating malaria," explains Lars Hviid, the head of the conference's scientific committee. "And thus, we need to look wherever we can for new leads. And I think that traditional medicine may well provide some of those leads."
The head of the African Union's health division, Dr. Thomas Bisika, says this level of willingness to work with traditional healers is relatively new. He notes some resistance still remains among the research community. Some of it is due, he says, to the cloud of secrecy that surrounds many traditional healing techniques.
"I want to draw attention to our colleagues in the biomedical practice," he said. "They should be more open to working with traditional healers. Because in the past, you know what used to happen, they tended to say that 'No, traditional healers, they're bad people.' They don't know anything. They're bad. They shouldn't be practicing."
However, Dr. Bisika says, in Africa where around 90 percent of malaria deaths occur, many people cannot afford expensive drug treatments. So, traditional medicines derived from plants with scientifically proven benefits are widely used.
"Traditional medicine has a very big role to play, because its the only affordable means of medication for the majority of the population in Africa. So, yes, we think that traditional medicine has a role to play, but we need to rethink how we operate," he said.
Dr. Bisika is pushing for intellectual property protection for these remedies to allow healers to be more open. He also wants to see more cooperation on developing traditional medicines that have been proven to work.
But traditional healer Mr. Adam, who has opened a center in Cameroon to pass his knowledge on to young apprentices, says he is still struggling to gain recognition.
"Its since 1976 that I'm involved with the ministry of health pushing research, in seminars, international seminars. Nobody is trying to help to develop the medicine at the center," he said.
Participants at the Pan-African Malaria Conference are discussing, among other things, prevention methods, candidate vaccines, and ways to build African research capacity.