Zimbabwe's government has authorized traditional herbalists to treat coronavirus patients, but health experts are skeptical and are urging extreme caution.
Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health delivered a letter Monday to the head of the country's main COVID-19 treatment center in Harare, asking him to consider using a herbalist who has questionable claims to have a cure for the virus.
Speaking via WhatsApp, Dr. Nyika Mahachi, the president of Zimbabwe College of Public Health Physicians, said the coronavirus was still evolving and its mortality was fairly high.
"So we cannot take a chance with traditional medicine that is not proven," he added. "Even on the regular medicines that we have, none of them have been proven to be effective in treatment or cure of COVID-19. So, this is an unwelcome development. I am hoping that this is not a true approval, something went wrong somewhere, and the ministry urgently addresses this."
Mahachi said the government should stick to WHO guidelines on how to contain the virus. Ten people have tested positive in Zimbabwe, and one person has died.
But Tribert Chishanyu, president of Zimbabwe Traditional Practitioners Association, said his organization was happy that President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government is allowing herbalists to treat coronavirus-positive Zimbabweans.
"Traditional medicine practice is older ... than science and it is accepted by the majority of Zimbabweans," he said. "If modern scientists are given opportunities to try whenever there is an emergency disease (outbreak), why can't we do the same to traditional medicine practice? We are treating symptoms related to COVID-19, so by (some) chance we may be able to treat COVID-19."
He added that traditional practitioners are consulting with "spirit mediums" in hopes of finding new COVID-19 treatments.
Fortune Nyamande, chairman of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, said using herbs may derail the gains that came with the nationwide 21-day lockdown which ends next week.
"We wish to highlight that those who are going to use this approach (herbs) need to be aware of how to use protective personal equipment because they may end up being affected by the virus and they may end up being agents of transmission to the broader communities," Nyamande said. "By and large, we say this needs to be treated with caution. We also advocate for interventions which are grounded in science, that are grounded in evidence and that have shown to work elsewhere."
Ministry of Health officials Tuesday refused to comment on the matter, but confirmed the authenticity of the letter authorizing herbalists to treat Zimbabweans affected by the coronavirus.