When Traditional Healing and Health Are At Odds

Traditional healing methods are found everywhere: from sipping chicken soup for a cold to spreading butter for a burn. Some traditions can effectively help relieve symptoms, but others can do more harm than good.

In many areas where Action Against Hunger operates, persistent misconceptions about health and traditional customs can lead to or acerbate malnutrition. That’s why community outreach and education are such a major part of our work – our local teams of staff and volunteers have deep knowledge of traditional beliefs and how best to reach people with new information and treatment methods.

In Warrap State, South Sudan, outbreaks of stomach flu – known locally as Thiang – are frequent. Its symptoms, which include severe diarrhea and vomiting, can contribute to malnutrition and be deadly in young children. When it comes to treating Thiang, families in the village of Achol Pagong adhere to traditional beliefs that go back generations – including a myth that visiting a health center leads to bad consequences for the child.

“In our community, a child with Thiang cannot be sent to the hospital for treatment,” explains Adhel Deng Tong, a 32-year-old mother of five children in Achol Pagong. Instead, the community employs a healing method that includes: “laying the sick child under the palm tree, giving herbal medicine, and restricting water intake for seven days if the child is a baby boy and eight days for baby girls.”

Earlier this year, a Thiang outbreak reached Adhel’s village, taking its heaviest toll on already acutely malnourished young children. Action Against Hunger’s teams were at the forefront of the response, treating severe cases and monitoring the outbreak on the ground.

When her baby fell sick, Adhel tried traditional treatment for 10 days, without success. Finally, after seeing her son fall sicker and sicker, she disregarded tradition and decided to go to the Action Against Hunger Nutrition Center for help. The nurse aide in charge assessed her child and found that he was acutely malnourished and severely dehydrated due to vomiting and diarrhea.

Adhel and her baby were referred to our Stabilization Center in a town called Alek, where more complicated malnutrition cases are treated. After five days, he was cured of Thiang and discharged. Together, he and his mother headed home with rations of Plumpy’Nut – a peanut-based treatment that will allow him to make a full recovery from malnutrition.

“My oldest child was very sick and treated here at the Stabilization Center…and now my youngest child has been cured from Thiang at the same center. This proved to me that Thiang can be treated at the hospital like other diseases.”

After returning home with a healthy child, Adhel volunteered to spread the word with her neighbors about the successful trip to the health center. She hopes her conversations will help more of her community to break with traditional healing methods and save more lives in future outbreaks.

In a recent community assessment, our teams determined that the main causes for the Thiang outbreak were contaminated water use and poor hygiene practices. Now, our outreach teams are visiting homes to strengthen awareness about improved hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as ensuring water sources throughout the community are treated.

Action Against Hunger’s Work in Warrap State, South Sudan

At our Stabilization Center in Warrap State – a region of South Sudan with some of the highest rates of severe acute malnutrition – dozens of children receive lifesaving treatment each month. Between October 2018 and March 2019, across our 14 nutrition sites in Warrap, 3,349 severely malnourished children under five years of age without medical complications were treated in outpatient treatment programs. 93.9% of children were cured and discharged – a rate that surpasses international standards for humanitarian organizations.

Outside of the center, in partnership with UNICEF and the World Food Program, our teams deliver additional nutrition services to treat and prevent acute malnutrition, including active screening, outpatient treatment, supplemental feeding programs, mother-to-mother support groups, health education, and counseling related to mother, infant and young child nutrition.

Action Against Hunger is the world’s hunger specialist and leader in a global movement that aims to end life-threatening hunger for good within our lifetimes. For more than 40 years, the humanitarian and development organization has been on the front lines, treating and preventing hunger across nearly 50 countries. It served more than 17 million people in 2019 alone.