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Cameroon’s Traditional Healers See Rush for Herbal Medicines to Treat COVID-19

A health worker wearing protective equipment, disinfects a member of medical staff amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an hospital in Douala, Cameroon, April 27, 2020.

Cameroon's traditional healers say they are being overwhelmed by the number of people seeking herbal medicine for prevention or treatment of the coronavirus. The rush for traditional healing comes as the central African nation confirms more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 and 121 deaths. But medical doctors caution the use of herbal medicine for the coronavirus.

Traditional healer Dewah, who only uses a first name, says his chain of herbal medicine clinics across Cameroon have been flooded with patients since the March outbreak of the coronavirus.

He spoke via a messaging application from the southwestern town of Kumba.

Dewah said in the last two months he has received at least 800 people from Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Chad who say they are rushing for African herbal medicine because they have been told there is no modern cure for COVID-19.

The demand for herbal medicine is so high, said Dewah, that he could not treat some patients because he ran short of the potions made from plants he harvests from the forest.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, he claims the potions can treat all the symptoms of COVID-19 and even save the infected from death.

Dianne Sop, a traditional healer in Yaounde, said in the last month she too has received about 200 patients seeking treatment for the coronavirus.

Sop said on Tuesday morning alone she received 10 patients but had to send four away because she is still waiting for more herbal medicines.

Medical researchers, doctors, and the Cameroon government have urged patients not to rely on traditional medicine for COVID-19 and to instead seek treatment at hospitals.

Douala city pharmacist Merilyne Peyou notes many Cameroonians do not live near hospitals but have easy access to traditional medicine.

She said many drugs sold in hospitals and pharmacies in Africa originate from herbs and tree leaves that were effectively used to treat Africans before the arrival of modern medicine. The only challenges of African herbal medicine, said Peyou, are that it is difficult to preserve, may become toxic, and healers don’t always know what dosage to prescribe.

Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health released a statement Thursday warning of quacks claiming they can treat COVID-19 to financially exploit people suffering from or worried about the virus.

Gidiun Peliegho, a researcher on African traditional medicine, said authorities should work to identify which herbs can treat COVID-19 and help to develop a cure.

"We need both financial and moral assistance. This is not the time for us to keep on doubting what African traditional medicine can do. What interests us now the most is getting to rescue the world population that is suffering."

The World Health Organization notes the use of products to treat COVID-19 that have not been robustly investigated can put people in danger.

In a May 4 statement, the WHO said untested and unproven medicines give a false sense of security and distract from proven measures such as hand washing and physical distancing.