South African authorities turn to traditional healers in HIV fight

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In an effort to combat the stigma and hesitation that often accompany HIV testing, South African officials are incorporating traditional healers into a pioneering pilot study.

This strategy is aimed at encouraging a broader demographic, especially young people, to participate in testing and to pursue medical intervention when necessary.

These healers, having been educated by researchers to administer HIV tests and provide counselling, are now instrumental in raising awareness about one's HIV status and in the efforts to halt the spread of the virus. This initiative is unprecedented in its scale of involving traditional healers in a major public health campaign.

South Africa is among the nations with the highest incidence of HIV. Despite the free availability of antiretroviral drugs and pre-exposure prophylaxis, the stigma attached to testing and treatment is still prevalent in many communities. Privacy concerns at medical clinics further discourage individuals from seeking out services.

The programme is set to expand later in the year, with plans to train at least an additional 325 healers to become certified HIV counsellors. The University of the Witwatersrand Agincourt is conducting research to assess whether individuals have a preference for testing conducted by healers as opposed to clinics.

Traditional healers are often the primary healthcare providers in rural areas. The initiative aims to leverage its position to alter public perceptions about HIV. Wonderful Mabuza, a researcher on the pilot project, emphasizes the improved access provided by traditional healers. "In some villages, the absence of clinics means residents must undertake long journeys to reach one. But with a traditional healer who can test for HIV in the vicinity, access is greatly facilitated," he notes.

The researchers are hopeful that the involvement of traditional medicine practitioners in testing and treatment could lead to the eradication of new HIV infections in locales such as rural Mpumalanga. Their ultimate aspiration is to motivate the South African government to adopt the program at a national level.

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