Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

First, Do No Harm

April 28th, 2010 · No Comments

While we’re sensitive to the fact that millions of people trust folk cures more than modern remedies, stories like this one make us question whether shamanism deserves to survive in the post-antibiotics age:

A couple in Samoa ,who perform traditional healing, have been found guilty of causing actual bodily harm, but had charges of manslaughter and witchcraft dismissed.

The case relates to the the death of a 37 year old woman they treated in 2008.

Sera and Felaia’i Lavasii were charged by the police after they treated the sick woman by placing her in a container half filled with boiling water, to chase away demons.

However the traditional treatment caused severe burns which resulted in her death.

As much as we lament this incident’s tragic (and entirely avoidable) outcome, the court’s verdict probably makes legal sense. We have little doubt that the two healers believed in the potential efficacy of their cure, as did their desperate patient. And, of course, we firmly don’t believe in witchcraft, so that charge was bunk from the start.

But there’s a deeper issue here, and that’s what role (if any) governments should play in nudging their populations away from shamanism and toward modern medicine. First off, let us head off the natural devil’s advocate retort here: Yes, there are certainly some folk cures that do work better than placebo. And we acknowledge that traditional healers, because they are more trusted than modern doctors in some community, may be better equipped to tackle psychosomatic illnesses in some patients. But boiling water to treat a mental-health issue? Um, no—you’ll never convince us that has any place in a society that cares about the physical well-being of its members.

We think, then, that the trick isn’t necessarily to ban or prosecute folk healers (except in extreme cases), but rather to usher them into licensing regimes. In exchange for the blessing of the state, healers should be expected to refrain from offering treatments that could be harmful. (Skeptics as we are, we assume that the vast majority of traditional treatments are entirely neutral. But that’s just us.) On top of that, healers could also be rewarded financially for referring truly ill patients to medical doctors.

Creating such a system would be no small task for many nations. But South Africa is already showing the way.

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