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Traditional medicine also known as herbal or alternative medicine include various health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating medicines from plants, animals, spiritual therapies, medical foods, manual techniques and exercise. It refers to all practices designed to promote mental, physical and spiritual well-being that are based on the beliefs practiced before the emergence of scientific medicine. According to WHO, traditional medicine is defined as the sum total of all knowledge and practices whether explicable or not used in the diagnosis, prevention and elimination of physical, mental imbalance and relying solely on practical experience and observation down from generation to generation whether verbally or written. Herbal medicine can also be defined as any finished product that contain active ingredient, aerial or underground part of plants or other plant material or combination of them whether in crude state or in plant preparation (Ghana’s Traditional Act). Alternative medicine ranges from spiritual to rituals and to the level of herbs.
About 50% of the world’s population and 70% of Nigerian population still depend on traditional medicine. Both the rich and the poor rely on this medicine even though the literates and the rich hide when using them. Traditional medicine is the local way of healing diseases with the use of herbs that constitutes part of plants such as the barks, roots, stems, flowers, seeds of plants and animals for rituals and to appease the gods or ancestral spirits. Traditional herbs and concoctions treat diverse diseases such as heart disease, infertility, malaria, pregnancies complications, fever, ulcer, Sexually Transmitted Disease (read about sexual transmitted disease here), menstrual disorders and so on.
Every society has a way of treating diseases because there of the desire to keep their population healthy. Before the colonial rule, Nigeria relied on traditional medicine to cater for their sick. Even with the advent of modern medicine, traditional medicine is still been practiced but now, side by side with modern medicine. Traditional medicine is part of our traditional religion, beliefs and it varies in different cultures and ethnics. The traditional medicine practiced in the western region of this country is different from the eastern part. The reason is because sickness and illness also differs in diverse cultures. Thus, the modes of treatment are designed to address the prevalent disease and ailments of the environments. With unique illnesses, people develop their unique traditional medicine to take care of themselves. For instance the affliction of pins on people is common in Anambra State which is strange in other places. The mode of treatment is being developed by their culture and only an experienced traditional practitioner can heal such patients. Patients are not to be taken to the hospitals because the patients will die with the insertion of injections.
There is no uniform system of traditional medicine in Nigeria. This system goes beyond maintaining the physical and mental health to encompass success in all areas of life, victory, deliverance and protection from evil spirits, attacks, and accidents. In this country, they are practices that are original to and emanated from the Nigerian society.
There are many ways of explaining the causes of disease in traditional medicine. Despite the cultural explanations, there are common diseases that cut across all cultures. For example, a person shivering with headaches is diagnosed to have malaria which is called “Iba” by both the Yoruba and Igbo culture. This is because we live in a malaria endemic environment. Another is “Necromancy” – the practice of conjuring the spirit of the dead in order to find out the cause of his or her death.
The major three ways of explaining the causes of disease traditionally are; Personalistic, Naturalistic and Emotional perspectives.
1 The Personalistic theory explains that illness is believed to be caused by
(i) Witchcraft or attacks from enemies who wants the victim dead, suffer or to spend all his riches and money on health seeking. The Yorubas call this “agbana”. Diseases that could not be given biological explanations are given such interpretations.
(ii) Evil spirit, water spirit that could attribute to constant ill health and mental illness. For example “abiku or emere” in Yoruba land and “ogbanje” in Igbo land.
(iii) Punishment from the gods or personal ancestors for disobedience or committing abomination. Illness without cure are categorised as such. Little wonder HIV/AIDS was given such interpretation.
2 Naturalistic theory is the belief that over-indulgence or too much of everything can lead to illness. Too much of eating, drinking, sexual activities can result in disease. Illness is as a result of disease that is transmitted through the food, drinks or from the body.
3 The third perspective, emotional theory, explains that human can be ill after a bad experience and emotional stress that can cause anxiety and fear.
This part of medicine is preferable to modern medicine because of its availability, accessibility and affordability. In every community, there is at least one traditional medicine practitioner capable of dispensing health care to the population. The ratio of traditional practitioners to the population is about 1:400 as against the modern medicine practitioners to population which is about 1:12,000. There is easy access to medical treatment especially in the rural areas.
Also, the cost of treatment is relatively cheap and sometimes free. This makes the medicine affordable. It is designed for all and this is why it is being patronized as the primary health care by most people. Sometimes, the cost for treatment can be cowry shells, food items or animals for ritual and appeasement which is affordable. Treatments are sometimes given before payment in times of emergencies. This makes it have an edge over modern medicine where payments are expensive, not affordable and must be made before treatments.
Since the practitioners are also members of the community, they know the best way of treating their patients and there is always a close and mutual relationship between the care-giver and the patients( read more about Traditional Medicine Practitioners here). Most of them are kind, attentive and close to their patients. Also, some ailments are treated better by traditional medicine, especially the ailments that cannot be explained and treated by bio-medicine. Traditional medicine takes cognisance of the social and cultural context of illness.
People attach many disadvantages to traditional medicine. It is believed to be practiced in a dirty environment and by rough and fearful looking practitioners. The practitioners are also believed to be witches, wizards and personalities possessed by evil spirits. The concoctions and herbs prescribed are taken in gulps with no medical prescriptions. Also, patronizing them is to the risks of the patients as they are not backed up by the Ministry of Health and cannot be sanctioned when mistakes and complications arise. Side effects and complications like stomach aches, kidney problem, and damage of internal organs are associated with the use of herbs.
Both the modern and traditional medicine should be integrated in the Nigeria health care delivery system for optimum health. They should complement each other in their weaknesses. Despite the disadvantages of the alternative medicine, many people, including the rich still rely on it. If not, who then are carriers of the rituals we see in the abodes of the literates and the rich?
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