Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

JAMAICA-HEALTH: A Return to Traditional Medicine

Misha Lobban

KINGSTON, Sep 18 1996 (IPS) - Some Jamaicans nowadays are going back many years in the past as they recapture the days when it was a visit to the backyard garden or the hills deep in some rural parish which guaranteed a return to good health and not a trip to the medical doctor.

But as modern medicine and health facilities rise beyond the reach of many, what some are calling primitive medicine is once again in vogue — at least for an estimated 50 percent of Jamaica’s 2.5 million population.

“Herbal medicines are not only effective but they are cheaper. The reality is that many people can no longer afford the high cost of prescription drugs,” says Ivy Anderson. She suffers from arthritis and has turned to herbal medicine after a five-year stint with prescribed drugs which she says never helped her condition.

Herbalists are now advertising cures for asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, migraine and infections. They are doing brisk business all over the country. You name it, we have it, they say.

“I cure many people and I feel good when they come back to me and tell me that they are better,” says Veronica Campbell as she displays a plethora of weeds, herbs and plants at her shop in Stony Hill, St. Andrew. These herbs she grows and markets like her mother and grandmother before her.

“This is my son,” she says. I used to take him to the doctor but I don’t take him anymore I cure him myself.”

The cost of Campbell’s cures — and she has different herbs for curing ailments from sexually transmitted diseases to the common cold — add up to just a fraction of what a visit to the medical doctor amounts to. Jamaicans now pay in the region of 31 dollars for a visit to a general practitioner, while prescription drugs for asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure could run in the region of another 100 dollars (3,200 Jamaican dollars).

Natrilix, a prescribed tablet for patients with high blood pressure costs 12.50 for one month’s supply.

Diabetics pay an estimated 32 dollars for a two-month dosage of insulin and four dollars for a packet of 10 needles needed to administer the dosage.

Migraine sufferers pay six dollars for a 20-pack of Tonopan tablets or a little less for 10 Cafergot tables. For a more effective cure, they must pay just under 29 dollars for one Imirgran tablet, one of the latest drugs on the market.

While these figures may not seem extraordinarily high, when taken against the background of the economic situation now prevailing in the country modern medicine is beyond the reach of many, observers say.

The minimum wage now stands at 25 dollars per week. Women who are employed as domestic helpers form the bulk of those who earn this sum. In many cases too, these women are heads of households — some 46 percent of Jamaica’s households are female headed.

The overall unemployment level at the end of last year stood at 16.4 percent, up from 15.4 percent in 1994, with women being the largest unemployed group — 64 percent.

It is therefore easier to depend on the herbs which are to be found in abundance in many parts of the countryside, or to obtain them from the increasing number of people who are growing and marketing these products.

“My doctor charges me 600 dollars (18.75) for each visit and tells me to come back every two weeks for regular checks. In addition to this I pay about 1,000 dollars (31.25) for the tablets which don’t last for one month.

“After so many years of visiting the doctor, I just don’t think it makes sense anymore. The tablets don’t work anymore. Persons have been encouraging me to try natural herbal remedies and although I have not tried it I am thinking about it as an alternative,” says 24-year-old Sheryl Keene who has been suffering with rheumatic fever since she was 10 years old.

But Jacqueline Gordon, a counsellor, is among the many Jamaicans who are now swearing by the herbal cures. “I have opted to use herbal medicines because they have very little side effects and they are in fact more effective than most prescriptive drugs,” says Gordon. She has now turned to the use of garlic in search of a cure for her asthmatic and diabetic conditions.

“People are going back to natural herbs such as cucumber which is good for curing skin problems and the marijuana leaves which is said to be an effective cure for asthma. Others have opted to take preventative measures such as sticking to a proper diet, regular exercise and relaxation rather than take prescribed drugs,” says Gordon.

Jamaica’s affair with herbal medicines began in the 16th century when West African slaves shipped to the island brought with them their knowledge of herbs and their medicinal values.

The sour sop leaf, for example, is believed to cure high blood pressure. Lettuce leaves are believed to be the cure for insomnia or for calming the nerves. A clove of garlic mixed with honey will get rid of coughs and colds.

Ginger, is thought to be a cure for sinusitis while the use of the bark from the cashew plant is believed to be able to effecitvely fight against diabetes.

But while many Jamaicans are embracing these new cures, medical doctors are warning that many of these natural herbs contain toxic elements that could be harmful to patients.

“The use of these herbal remedies are based on cultural practices and their results are often psychological but the disadvantage in using these natural herbs is that persons are unable to ascertain the proportion of the drugs that the body requires which results in their over-consumption and drug toxicity,” says nurse Mervlyn Johnson.

For instance, says Johnson, over consumption of tea made from natural herbs can in some cases cause serious damage to the liver, heart and kidney.

“It is important that persons suffering from illnesses get medical attention as medical doctors are more experienced professionally and can offer medical assessment and intervention during the course of treatment,” she adds.

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