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Traditional healers in rural Mpumalanga help diagnose HIV

- Wits University

Research project in Bushbuckridge empowers traditional healers to conduct HIV testing, refer those positive for treatment, thereby curbing new infections.

An initiative of Wits University’s MRC/Wits Agincourt Research Unit, the Traditional Healers Project convened two ‘open houses’ at local primary healthcare facilities – Rolle Clinic and Thulamahashe Community Health Centre in rural Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga – in March 2023.

An ‘open house’ is a community and stakeholder gathering hosted at a public health facility in partnership with the Department of Health.

The aim of these sessions is to build on the relationship that the MRC/Wits Agincourt Research Unit has established between local traditional healers, community members, and healthcare facility staff to support the end of HIV through regular HIV counselling and testing.

Traditional healers in public health

The sessions supplement research that began almost a decade ago, which focuses on the role of traditional healers in healthcare access and delivery.

Specifically, this research aims to determine:

  • whether traditional healers can conduct HIV counselling and testing (HCT)
  • whether the patients of traditional healers are willing to undergo HCT that is administered by a traditional healer
  • whether traditional healers and biomedical healthcare workers can work together to help link patients to HIV/AIDS diagnosis and care.

The open house sessions form part of this research and provide a platform where traditional healers and biomedical healthcare workers can come together and build mutual understanding and trust, with a view to linking those who test positive for HIV with healthcare providers who can then administer lifesaving antiretroviral treatment (ART) and care.

15 traditional healers certified HIV counsellors and testers

Gogo Grace is one of the traditional healers who is now a certified HIV counsellor and tester in Bushbuckridge Mpumalanga_photo Sandra Maytham Bailey

The open houses drew an audience of more than 150 participants, including 15 traditional healers, local indunas [tribal chiefs], community healthcare workers (CHWs), community members, and representatives from Right to Care (a local collaborating partner on HIV) and the Department of Health.

Mr. Wonderful Mabuza, Project Manager at the MRC/Wits Agincourt Research Unit, oversees the open houses and says that the successes to date have far surpassed expectations:

“It is exciting to be part of the group that is doing this work, knowing that we have a lot of people who visit traditional healers in our communities. It’s groundbreaking to have traditional healers trained to provide HIV counselling and testing – and amazing to see community members respond, with some never having tested previously.”

Gogo Singabeni, one of the 15 traditional healers who has completed the programme, says: “I was very excited to be invited to the HIV training, and that we would be certified in HIV testing and counselling. It’s important to show people proof that I am certified to do HIV testing.”

She adds: “The first day of testing [a patient] was very difficult for me. I was even shaking as I was conducting the test. I started with the first client, although I was shaking, and I managed to complete the process according to how we were trained. After the client left, I drew strength in seeing that I am able to do it.”

Partnerships imperative

Dr Ryan Wagner, Senior Research Fellow at the MRC/Wits Agincourt Research Unit, leads the traditional healers programme known collectively as Ntirhisano (Shangaan for ‘working together’).

He emphasises the importance of the Ntirhisano team, traditional healers, community healthcare workers, and the Department of Health collaborating to strengthen the referral system. 

“In order to expand coverage and increase uptake of HIV testing – and thereby contribute to ending new HIV cases – we need to embrace innovative approaches, such as traditional healer-initiated HIV counselling and testing,” says Wagner.

“We have recruited and trained 15 traditional healers in the Thulamahashe/Rolle area who, for the past six months, have been successfully testing their patients for HIV/AIDS. Those who tested positive have been referred to a local clinic or community healthcare worker.”

The Department of Health’s Primary Healthcare Supervisor, Sister Mariah Mkhari, says: “The Department of Health alone cannot do it, but with such collaborations between MRC/Wits and other stakeholders we will be able to conquer HIV. We welcome the initiative, and we hope Wits can expand to other areas in Bushbuckridge and train all traditional healers to test for HIV.”

The MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research unit, based in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga and in the Wits School of Public Health in Johannesburg, Gauteng, has carried out population-based research in rural Mpumalanga for over 30 years. Ntirhisano is a workstream within the Agincourt research unit.