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African Conference Focuses on AIDS Drugs, Traditional Healers

The 12th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases is wrapping up in Africa. The meeting in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, has focused largely on the accessibility to low-cost anti-retroviral drugs.

Delegates attending the four-day conference presented alternatives that governments and advocacy groups have come up with to ensure that those who cannot afford Western-made drugs get treatment.

The alternatives discussed included changes in laws to allow for the import, manufacture, and use of generic drugs that are cheaper than patent brands.

The conference also touched on the growing role of traditional healers in treating people with HIV and AIDS. Advocates at the meeting also pushed for the recognition of African traditional medicine as a viable alternative for care.

Scores of demonstrators gathered outside the conference, demanding that serious consideration be given to the role of traditional healers.

Mariam N'Goula, attending the conference on behalf of the World Health Organization, said integrating traditional medicine into health systems in Sub-Saharan Africa may be essential to helping those who cannot afford conventional medical care.

"Eighty-five-percent, more or less, of the population [in Africa] does not have access to medicine," explained Ms. N'Goula. "So then they go to the traditional healers. The population refers to them as a first point [of treatment], not only for HIV/AIDS, but for most things because the health system is not affordable for them, for most of the population. We really want to see how we can best utilize traditional medicine and then use it to improve the quality of care and the health system in our region."

Ms. N'Goula noted that there are mainstream health products on the market for other diseases, like malaria, that have been developed through cooperation between the pharmaceutical companies and traditional healers in West Africa. But she adds that some traditional healers are skeptical of cooperating for fear that companies may not remunerate them for their formulas or ideas.

The meeting in Ouagadougou sought to continue discussions on the battle against a mounting HIV infection rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. The meeting follows a UN report earlier this month that said well over half of the people living with HIV in the world, are in Africa.