Traditional healers join formal health care in Kenya

By Gatonye Gathura

The health ministry has formally invited traditional healers to treat cancer patients in its new five-year strategy.

The invitation, the recent presidential assent to the Health Act 2017 and its gazettement effectively usher in traditional healers into the formal health care system in Kenya.

The ministry, in the 2017-22 cancer strategy launched last Friday says it will educate its health workers and communities on the availability of alternative cancer treatments.

The ministry says it will move fast to streamline alternative health care practice in the country including its regulation and management.

This is the latest in a series of events showing that finally alternative, herbal and traditional medicines have being incorporated into the formal health care.

On 21st June President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law Health Act 2017 which was subsequently gazetted on 30th of the same month.

This Act of Parliament for the first time legally brings alternative and traditional health practice fully under the national ministry of health alongside conventional medicine.

This is a major development in the history of the country’s health care sector with conventional doctors supposed to cooperate with their counterparts in alternative health practice.

The Act directs the Ministry of Health to develop guidelines to facilitate the cross referral of patients between conventional and traditional health care practitioners.

“The ministry may also prescribe regulations for connected purposes which shall be implemented by the country governments,” prescribes the new law.

The new Act also directs Parliament to establish a regulatory body to manage the practice of traditional and alternative medicine.

Already a private bill sponsored by Member of Parliament Rachel Nyamai, The Traditional Health Practitioners Bill 20l4 is waiting for a first reading at the National Assembly.

Another similar bill and most likely to win the day because of its wider backing including by the Ministry of Health, The Traditional Herbal Medicine And Medicinal Plants Bill 2014 is also ready for presentation to Parliament.

A major similarity in the two drafts is the suggested heavy representation of government officials in the proposed national council to manage the to be reorganized alternative medicine sector.

These developments are the culmination of efforts suggested way back in 2002 by the then Minister for Health Prof Sam Ongeri.

Prof Ongeri had then suggested traditional healers be incorporated into the national health care system. A suggestion then strongly opposed by conventional doctors.

“Our position is that only properly researched drugs with proven medicinal value should be incorporated into evidence-based practice and provided in our public hospitals,” wrote the then national chairman of the Kenya Medical Association Dr James Nyikal.

Shortly after, Dr Nyikal was appointed Director of Medical Services. In February, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) presented evidence vindicating the use of some local herbs in treating cancer.

At its annual scientific conference Kemri researchers presented evidence showing more than 20 locally available plants, most already being used by herbalists, have capacity to treat cancer.

“We shall create awareness among healthcare providers and the community on other available options including conventional, complementary and alternative medicines,” says the new cancer strategy document.

“One of the major problems we are facing is the acute shortage of qualified cancer care professionals,” says Dr Alfred Karagu, the acting Chief Executive Officer at the ministry’s National Cancer Institute.

Shortage of human resources is the biggest problem facing the national health sector today.

An earlier World Bank survey shows the alternative medicine sector in Kenya could bring on board about 40,000 practitioners.

The survey, The Contribution of Traditional Herbal Medicine Practitioners to Kenyan Health Care Delivery shows this group could dramatically increase the number of health care providers.

“It is estimated that each practitioner treats about 2,000 patients annually; which translates to nearly 80.4 million contacts per year for the total 40,000 herbalists,” says the survey.

On the whole, the World Bank survey says formal recognition and support of the practice of traditional herbal medicine in Kenya will be beneficial.