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Traditional healers seen as key to beating Marburg virus

© WHO/Juliane
Joan Francisco, a senior Uige traditional healer, receives protection material from UNICEF.

By Macarena Aguilar

LUANDA, 29 April 2005 - In a concerted effort to stop the spread of the deadly Marburg virus, Angola’s Ministry of Health, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are working with traditional healers and traditional birth attendants.

More than 250 people have died from Marburg, a highly infectious disease related to Ebola. The outbreak – the world’s worst -- is centred in the northern Angolan province of Uige. A total of 275 cases have been recorded, 264 of which are in Uige.

Doctors suspected that the people of Uige were using the services of traditional healers when Marburg-infected corpses showed signs that they had been treated at home. Used syringes were also found in the homes of some of the victims, suggesting unsafe injections.

 “Obviously people are still seeking help from their traditional healers or treating themselves in the houses,” said Patricia Cervantes, UNICEF Programme Communication Officer in Uige. “They are scared, confused and they turn to what they have always known and trusted.”

© UNICEF Angola/2005/Cervantes
Traditional Birth Attendant, Adelina Antoni, practices wearing protection gloves during an information session in Uige.

Changing these habits has become a UNICEF priority. Radio messages targeting Uige’s more than 120 traditional healers have been broadcast for the last couple of days. Posters urge the people of Uige to have injections only in hospital.

“We are appealing for all the healers to take an active part in the race to control the epidemic. We give them the means to protect themselves, we tell them to avoid giving any injections to ill people and urge them to refer people with Marburg-like symptoms to the hospital ,” said Cervantes.

A distribution point has also been organised at the UNICEF office in the town centre to give the traditional healers protection gear such as gloves and soap.

Volunteers are ensuring that every healer is also properly informed of Marburg’s symptoms and prevention methods.

© UNICEF Angola/2005/Cervantes
WHO social mobilisation expert explains to Uige birth attendants and traditional healers how to protect themselves when treating a suspected case of Marburg.

Traditional birth attendants are also crucial for channelling life-saving messages to the people of Uige. Every day they assist at least three births and advise the mothers on general maternal health issues.

“Working with traditional birth attendants has been like a natural process,” says Ms Cervantes. “As soon as our activities started to be known around Uige, they automatically came to us seeking information, direction and protection material.”

The numbers of new cases of Marburg are slowly dropping. The population of Uige is increasingly reporting the presence of sickness – as opposed to reporting only deaths - to health teams.

“Thankfully, the effects of the information campaign that was launched at the outset of the outbreak are now showing,” says UNICEF Representative, Mario Ferrari. “We can begin to think more positively, but we need to continue with the same level of action and surveillance.”




Click here to watch a public service announcement from Angola about the Marburg virus. It features a student advising her friends not to come in contact with a person with the disease and to report any symptoms to their parents. (In Portugese)

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