Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ebola in Siera Leone: Lethal quackery

Quoting from today's report Sierra Leone's 365 Ebola deaths traced back to one healer (by Frankie Taggart, AFP via Yahoo! News):

"Kenema (Sierra Leone) (AFP) - It has laid waste to the tribal chiefdoms of Sierra Leone, leaving hundreds dead, but the Ebola crisis began with just one healer's claims to special powers.

The outbreak need never have spread from Guinea, health officials revealed to AFP, except for a herbalist in the remote eastern border village of Sokoma.

"She was claiming to have powers to heal Ebola. Cases from Guinea were crossing into Sierra Leone for treatment," Mohamed Vandi, the top medical official in the hard-hit district of Kenema, told AFP.

"She got infected and died. During her funeral, women around the other towns got infected."

Ebola has killed more than 1,220 people since it emerged in southern Guinea at the start of the year, spreading first to Liberia and cutting a gruesome and gory swathe through eastern Sierra Leone since May.

The tropical pathogen can turn people into de facto corpses with little higher brain function and negligible motor control days before they die.

The virus attacks almost every section of tissue, reducing organs and flesh in the most aggressive infections to a pudding-like mush which leaches or erupts from the body.

The virus is highly infectious through exposure to bodily fluids, and its early rapid spread in west Africa was attributed in part to relatives touching victims during traditional funeral rites.

The herbalist's mourners fanned out across the rolling hills of the Kissi tribal chiefdoms, starting a chain reaction of infections, deaths, funerals and more infections..."

The common people of course helped the virus by adhering to their traditional funeral rites, highly inadequate during an epidemic. They forgot a basic common sense rule: Never, ever put honoring the dead above the well-being of the living! Or you may have more dead, and fewer survivors to honor them.

However, if that "healer" had not dropped the bomb with her claims, villagers could have continued to say farewell to their dead as they wished and would not be infected, because the virus was not there. She started it all.

This report shows very well why alternative medicine is not only useless but also can cause much harm and must be avoided.

It is not because patients turning to alternative "providers" waste valuable time to be helped by official medicine. For most of those who seek alternative medicine, official medicine either cannot provide much help or is simply unavailable.

However, alternative medicine not only is unlikely to be of any help. It is likely to be harmful. And this is not only because alternative "healers" have not gone to medical school and lack science education. The biggest problem is that they often lack what was there before any science: the critical thinking and the humbleness to admit that you don't know what you don't know. This lack is essential for their "qualification"; for if they admit what they don't know, this will cover pretty much everything.

Alt-med practitioners can be roughly divided into two types: greedy quacks who intentionally deceive their patients and delusional individuals who truly believe in what they are selling. And as the Sierra Leone example shows, the latter, though better from ethical point of view, can actually do more harm.

The self-proclaimed healer made up in her head that she had a cure for Ebola. Had she a mental illness? We shall never know. But she was clearly inadequate, out of touch with reality. She paid the ultimate price for her delusion. Unfortunately, so did hundreds of others.

Of course, official medicine also has no cure for Ebola yet. But at least it admits it. It will not lure you with a false promise to travel many miles, lowering even further your chance to survive. And those victims from Guinea who were doomed anyway would at least have the last comfort of dying at home.

A commenter posting as David says it all: "So much for alternative medicine."

It would be an exaggeration to say that it is worse than Ebola. But it certainly makes Ebola worse.

1 comment:

Winston said...


Btw, feel free to follow me on twitter: @winstonCDN