Fifteen-year-old Hareda Osman Abukar has been in poor health since childhood. Over time, she’s become paralyzed in both her arms and legs. Hareda, who lives in Marka, southern Somalia, has also lost sight in one eye.
Her mother Habiba Hussein blames her condition on treatments given by a healer when she was three months old. He scorched her head with a burning stick. Doctors have confirmed that the incident caused brain damage, leading eventually to paralysis.
Her mother says ever since then, her health has worsened. She says her daughter’s limbs are limp, and her legs have actually shrunk.
Head-burning [which has no scientific proof of efficiency] is not the only traditional treatment thought by physicians, to be harmful. Healers also use herbal remedies and special foods, burn incense, and perform readings from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, to treat seizures and illnesses said to be caused by spirits, including fever, headaches, and dizziness.
Traditional healers are often elders from the community who have learned their skills from older family members. They are consulted for various types of diseases such as hepatitis, measles, chicken pox, hunch-back, facial droop and broken bones.
Undeterred by the criticism is Hassan Mumin, a healer working in southern Somalia. He says healers treat many childhood illnesses, including diarrhea which is common in infants. Burning a child’s head cures the problem, Mumin asserts.
'First, do no harm'
Doctors however are urging Somalis to seek help from qualified professionals.
Hereda’s physician Doctor Abdirahman Mohamed Bilal of Marka’s General Hospital says, “burning a child’s head is not the solution.”
He says it’s vital for parents to bring their children to the hospital as soon as an illness occurs. Although doctors don’t have all of the equipment they need, he says they can usually treat diarrhea if the child is brought early.
Doctor Abdirahman says Hareda will likely need head surgery, and access to sophisticated medical equipment like the computerized thermograph found in industrialized countries.
Traditional healing has been practiced for centuries in Somalia, where it’s sometimes the only form of medical assistance for people in rural areas. The urban poor rely on it as well.
Somali physicians admit civil strife is leading to the declining health of all Somalis. But they say some of the so-called healers are making a bad situation even worse.
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