How traditional healers are stopping a plague in Uganda (Washington Post)
I've got a story in tomorrow's Washington Post on scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who are studying plague in northwest Uganda. That's right, I'm talking about the same disease that caused the Black Death of the 14th century. Although the piece focuses on plague as a biological weapon, I also tell the story of how traditional healers are helping save lives by recognizing symptoms and referring suspect plague cases to clinics for treatments:
Despite their efforts so far in Uganda, the team has not achieved its goal of reducing plague mortality from about 30 percent to 15 percent. Mead at first suspected that people farthest from clinics were not getting diagnosis and treatment within the two-day window that makes the difference. That hunch proved wrong.
It turned out that cultural traditions were key, and they were working against the CDC. Many people in Baniyo’s village rely on traditional healers, who treat illness with herbs or prayers. During a 2008 outbreak of pneumonic plague, the healer was one of those sickened — and a fully stocked clinic was less than a half-mile away. “Having a diagnostic dipstick and effective antibiotics doesn’t really matter if a person doesn’t get to the clinic,” Mead says.
So in 2010, Titus Apangu of the Ugandan Virus Research Institute, with funding from the CDC, began recruiting 10 of these traditional healers, training them to recognize plague symptoms and providing them with bicycles, cellphones and referral cards to direct patients to a specialist at the local clinic. The number of healers working with the institute has now climbed to 42, and they have made 562 referrals for suspected cases of plague, malaria, tuberculosis and other serious illnesses. Some are even sporting homemade uniforms with a CDC logo.
On a recent morning, Mark Wadribo, a healer in a blue sweater with a wooden cross around his neck, pulled out his book of referrals and told the story of a young farmer who limped into his compound last year. The man was so weak, he could barely speak. “When I examined him, I found high fever,” Wadribo recalled. “I asked if he had swellings.” The man revealed a bubo on the left side of his groin.
In the past, Wadribo treated such patients by making incisions and rubbing herbs in the wound. This time, he grabbed his cellphone and told his brother to ready the motorbike. They had a plague to stop.