Ebola, Ambassador Andrew Young, and the Potential Role of Native African Medicine

Photo of Andrew Young, Jr.The former United Nation’s Ambassador from the United States, Andrew Young, Jr. (pictured) was playing a different sort of ambassadorial role in early May 2015. The civil rights activist who would also later be a multi-term mayor of the city of Atlanta, Georgia, presented an intriguing story of an encounter with an African traditional healer from Senegal. The healer who told him that the very best tools against Ebola were traditional therapies. Interest piqued, Young had the healer send him the herbs he had in mind. A box arrived with 5 separate varieties. Young had them checked with researchers at the Morehouse School of Medicine who then “worked with US Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to test the compounds.”

The findings: “All of the extracts – all five of them – had activity against Ebola virus.” This according to Michael Powell, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology, biochemistry and immunology at Morehouse. An article, Possible Ebola Cure May be Found in Native African Plants, describes the two hour press conference in which Young participated with Powell. He and others called for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others to engage the research to test the claims. Said Powell on the findings: “This is exciting because it’s a first step.”

This story hit within a few days of another article entitled Ebola’s Silver Lining: Guineans learn to have faith in hospitals. The picture is presented of hospitals sitting nearly empty prior to the outbreak of the virus. One person was quoted this way: “People started to realise that when they had [Ebola-like symptoms] and went to a medicine man, they died. When they went to the hospital, they were cured.” Another stated: “This means Ebola is stronger than the féticheurs [traditional healers]. So now there are many people who have lost faith in their powers.”

Photo of Gueckdou hospitalThe article states that more Guineans are coming to the hospitals for other conditions now. (Image from Gueckdou hospital.) But many remain unconvinced: “They can hardly distinguish between malaria and Ebola,” he said. “Doctors are just always doing guesswork, while traditional healers are more precise in their work. Their medicines do cure.” Then a local chief states that he has come to believe that “maybe hospitals can cure certain sicknesses in certain situations” but that he remains unconvinced about their value with others.

Comment: On one side, Ambassador Young pleads for resources to explore what most in the scientific community would probably regard as an unlikely source of solution against something as powerful as Ebola. On the other, Western medicine providers happy that Ebola was, effectively, an ambassador of a sort for their non-traditional medicine. Clearly, given the adverse consequences of over reliance on industrial medicine in, for instance, the over-prescribed U.S., the chief’s native wariness may be viewed as having its merits. The two articles, back to back, make a simple case for breaking out of either-or and opening up to potential from whatever sources.

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