US CDC Head Frieden on Global Health Nightmares: Contributions From Indigenous Systems?

Tom Friedan, MDA recent article in Epoch Times begins with Tom Friedan, MD (pictured), ticking off the top “three nightmare threats” to global health. He lists the following: emerging infectious diseases (such as Ebola), antibiotic resistance, and the potentially disastrous relationship if both converge. Friedan is the administrator of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He was speaking at the 4th Atlanta Summit on Global Health in Latin America and the Caribbean, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. Friedan’s prescription: “The way to prepare for the unimaginable is to strengthen global health systems.”

Virginia Davis Floyd, MDThe article, by writer Mary Silver, immediately continues with: “It is also necessary to strengthen indigenous health systems.” The text notes the challenges that can surface if Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) come into a nation without any significant connection with the local population. She cites the recent reports of the wasteful Red Cross Haitian disaster. During the Summit,a questioner, Virginia Davis Floyd, MD (pictured), a member of the Morehouse School of Medicine faculty and former Ford Foundation official who has studied indigenous systems via a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, stirred a conversation regarding whether the NGOs work with “local traditional healers and lay midwives.” Silver synopsized the response: “Some of the doctors said they did work with local healers, and noted how valuable it is to do that. As trusted members of the community, they are ideal conduits for health information.” Silver concludes,“Any surge [in activity to meet a crisis] and any health education program must flow both ways, with respect and compassion.”

Comment: In my first quick read of the article, I thought I was reading that CDC head Frieden was recommending the strengthening of indigenous health systems as a step toward prevention of future disasters. This surprised me. It is rare that a professional as ensconced and empowered in Western medical solutions would reach across the intercultural divide to suggest that global health would be enhanced if indigenous systems are strengthened rather than supplanted. This elevation of indigenous medicine, though, appears to be the writer’s perspective rather than Frieden’s. However, it apparently was raised by Morehouse’s Floyd and apparently some members of one of the Atlanta Summit’s panels agreed. (Efforts to contact Floyd or find Frieden’s full remarks to gain clarity have not yet been successful.)

Silver’s bias raises intriguing questions. Can use of indigenous methods perhaps help us with even something as powerful as Ebola, as Ambassador Andrew Young and other Morehouse personnel have suggested? Can “mainstreaming of traditional medicine” as suggested in this recent piece on Senegal be a significant part of “African solutions to African problems in health”? Might traditional medicines help stem overuse of antibiotics, as the directorof the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health Josephine Briggs, MD, has suggested?

Here’s looking forward to a time  when Western leaders speaking of “strengthening global health systems” clearly mean also maximizing the potential from integrating practices that preceded the arrival of NGOs. The value may go far beyond merely serving as “conduits for health information.”

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