Letter from Africa: Doctors take on traditional healers in Kenya

A sign for a herbalist in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya - archive shotImage copyright

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Herbalists promise to cure all sorts of ailments

In our series of letters from Africa, journalist Joseph Warungu considers a possible fight back by Kenyan doctors against traditional healers.

Like elsewhere in Africa, traditional healers or herbalists are everywhere in Kenya, and they say they can cure everything.

A quick look at the pages of our daily newspapers says it all.

You will find herbalists proudly advertising their services, not just in the newspapers, but also on posters stuck on street lamps.

The services of a traditional healer are indispensable.

As long as there are marriages to be rescued, football games to be won and businesses to be resuscitated, the healers are here to stay.

“Is your husband falling out of love? Come and see me and I shall give you the cure to capture his love permanently,” the adverts say.

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Traditional healers openly advertise their cures

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Newspaper adverts for healers even promise to help expose romantic infidelities

Yet others would shout: “If you’re struggling with a terrible disease that no doctor can cure, come to me, I can help you.”

We see this kind of advertising daily and many of us do not think much of it.

The fact that the herbalists can sustain regular expensive newspaper advertising suggests business is good.

But now the herbalists are about to face competition on street lamps and on the classified pages of our newspapers.

Medical practitioners will soon be able to advertise their services, following a change in the law that is due to come into effect this month.

Treatment abroad

It might be unfair to say the men and women in white coats were getting a little jealous of their herbalist counterparts, who have faced no restrictions, even as they claim to treat anything.

The move by the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board – which regulates the practice of medicine and dentistry – to allow advertising by doctors, is partly seen as a fight back.

Medical practitioners will be able to counter the popularity of herbalists, who were able to to aggressively market their products and services, while doctors, bound by their code of ethics, kept a respectful distance.

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The new rules should level the playing field between doctors and traditional healers

The Medical Board says it will deny the title “doctor” to anyone not examined and reviewed by the board but who purports to cure certain illnesses.

But all this may not be enough to regain the custom of some more affluent Kenyans, who having lost faith in home-grown doctors, are opting to leave the country and receive medical treatment abroad.

According to estimates, Kenyans spend the equivalent of $100m (£70m) every year for treatment overseas, with India the most popular destination.

On a recent trip to Ahmedabad in western India, I met many Africans who had come from different countries such as Tanzania, Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria in search of specialised treatment.

Joseph Warungu:

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BBC Sema Kenya

“Part of the success of the so-called Indian medical tourism has been aggressive marketing by Indian hospitals in Kenya”

All of them told me they were very satisfied with the standard of medical care they were receiving and the opportunity to access generic Indian drugs, which cost a fraction of what they’d pay back home.

“I came here on a wheelchair due to a severe back problem,” one Kenyan woman told me.

“Two weeks later and I’m walking again.”

Part of the success of the so-called Indian medical tourism has been aggressive marketing by Indian hospitals in Kenya.

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African doctors also have to compete with medical tourism destinations, especially India

However, a few doctors have been a little too eager to put their patients on a flight abroad.

A local daily newspaper recently revealed a scheme, in which Kenyan doctors were allegedly working on commission to fast-track patient referrals to Indian hospitals.

‘Difficulty spotting a quack’

It is also not clear how the newly permitted marketing by medical professionals will actually function.

The Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board has been busy working out the finer details.

Some people are worried that the move might affect the doctor-patient relationship.

The reason the ban was introduced in the first place was to safeguard trust between doctor and patient.

It gave people confidence that the doctor was working in the patient’s best interests, without being motivated by how deep their pockets were.

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The doctors’ union wants tighter regulation of herbalists

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union wants to see clear guidelines for doctors.

Its secretary-general, Dr Ouma Oluga, told me they would like the new rules to be brought in carefully.

“Sometimes the public don’t know who is a genuine doctor and who is a quack,” he says, adding that there also needs to be tighter regulation of herbalists.

“The media gives prominence to these herbalists who claim they can cure serious illnesses in no time at all, yet when things go wrong doctors get the blame.”

Now the men and women with stethoscopes may have to go head-to-head with competitors armed with herbs and other traditional remedies.

We do not know yet how far the doctors will go in selling their services, but as long as the herbalist is free to sell me the world, I am tempted to direct my protruding pot belly to his obscure clinic, just to see if I come out with a six-pack.

More from Joseph Warungu:

Judiciary on trial

Why Kenya has banned on-air sex

Tanzania’s new wine gets to work

Tanzania’s cybercrime law

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