A Mother’s Dilemma: Traditional vs. Modern Medicine

Local midwife or hospital? Shaman or physician? Spiritual medicine or scientific medicine? Which is more effective at keeping children safe and healthy? Are they mutually exclusive?

These are just some of the questions that mothers in developing countries face when making decisions about their children’s health and well-being. The answer, unfortunately, may not be as easy to discern as some of us may think.

Take the case of Abiiro. In a recent Trust Law post, Anthropologist Aaron R. Denham describes Abiiro as a 34-year-old mother of three living in rural North-eastern Ghana. Her youngest daughter, 3-year-old Azuma, wheezes, cries endlessly, doesn’t sleep and constantly asks to be carried. The child is also severely underweight (a mere 11 pounds!), cannot stand on her own due to bowed legs, and has a wandering right eye.

According to Denham, the nurse that visited Abiiro and Azuma,

…quickly pronounced Azuma fine and said Abiiro simply needed to provide her with “proper nutrition” and vitamins to stimulate her appetite. She prescribed vitamins, antibiotics for Azumas’s respiratory infection and medication for a suspected malaria infection.

Denham goes on:

“That wandering eye is caused by the child failing to get the proper eye drops during birth,” the nurse explained. “The mother must have had gonorrhea when she gave birth. If she would have gone to the hospital to deliver, none of this would have happened.”

A very scientific, modern medicine-based diagnosis with a clear, relatively simple treatment plan.

Abiiro and her family, however, have a very different explanation. According to Denham, Azuma’s family regards her wandering eyes as a sign of malicious spiritual influence. Denham writes:

…the family suspected her of being a “spirit child,” a malicious spirit from the bush with a grave intention of destroying the family…From the family’s perspective, Azuma represented a risk to her mother, the family’s livelihood and its continued existence in this and in the ancestral world.

They consequently had their own diagnosis and corresponding treatment plan — a poisonous substance that would send her back to the spirit world and prevent her from harming her family members.

So where is the line drawn? Obviously I don’t condone killing children, but I’m not the one that needs convincing here. Perhaps families like Abiiro and Azuma’s developed this explanation and “cure” over time to help them explain and cope with something otherwise beyond both their understanding and control.

If you’re like me — born and raised in the USA — Abiiro’s dilemma is a no brainer: take Azuma to the doctor! Buy those vitamins! However, I think that in the western world, there is a tendency to put modern, scientific science on a pedestal and dismiss traditional and/or tribal healing methods as superstitious mumbo jumbo at best (dangerous and life-threatening at worst). I also think we sometimes forget about the power of ideology. When people live their entire lives inside a specific belief system, it’s extraordinarily difficult to fully change their way of explaining the world. If someone has told you essentially from birth that a wandering eye is a sign of an evil spirit, it’s going to be next to impossible to convince you otherwise, especially if you’ve had limited contact with other ways of life.

Those of us reared in the developed world also live entrenched in our own belief systems that we cling to with as much certainty as those from other backgrounds. Likewise, when I get a fever, I easily attribute its cause to a virus or infection, whereas someone living in a remote part of Ghana or Mexico may just as intuitively explains the same fever as a curse or troubled spirit. Whether or not women in developing countries accept the benefits of something like modern medicine, there’s likely going to be a small cloud of doubt niggling at the back of their mind.

Of course, there’s always the argument that taking a child to see a shaman or other traditional health practitioner is blatantly ignoring the benefits of modern medical advances and quite simply putting his or her life at risk. I can’t imagine the frustration that physicians working in developing countries must feel watching a child die who they maybe could have easily cured if they had been consulted sooner.

But as more individuals in developing areas have greater access to modern medicine, how do we satisfy both viewpoints? Parents, after all, typically want to do whatever possible to protect their offspring. Why should they let go of one way of caring for their children simply to embrace a new, less familiar method? Denham likewise makes the point that no matter which system of care mothers choose for their children, they are condemned by both sides.

In other words, if mothers like Abiiro embrace modern medicine, they may increase their child’s chances of survival, but be ostracized by their community for not adhering to local traditions. Without a support network, both their child’s and their own lives may be at risk. On the other hand, if they ignore the advice of physicians, they remain in their family’s good graces, but may then lose their child. Which is preferable? The loss of a child? Possibly jeopardizing the future of an entire community?

What do you think? Should mothers — and fathers for that matter — in the developing world have to choose between traditional and modern medicine? Should physicians in the developing world make more of an effort to collaborate with practitioners of traditional medicine?

Please leave your comments below.

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Photo Credit: hdptcar via Flickr


Bill C.
Bill C5 years ago

Bryon your statement is an ill informed sad one how many cancer patients have you treated?

Or is it possible your information comes from sites like "Dt Mercola" or "Alternet" ?

You need a reality check and I know the perfect way, spend 8 hrs volunteering at a Ronald McDonald House talk to the kids and learn.

In a 3 rd world country where they burn p[eople as witches your choices are limited, in other places the smart woman uses th best of both medical approaches that are established.

Bryon S.
Bryon S5 years ago

I'm all for complimentary medicine. We would have the best of both worlds if we were to incorporate it. Unfortunately, the powerful BIG PHARMA would never allow it. They might loose some of their power when the masses realize how healing traditional medicines can be. I'm not advocating poisoning children...but herbs, acupuncture and the like are safe, effective and unfortunately, often the last resort for people searching for a cure that won't kill them in the process. I suspect that cancer treatments kill more people than cancer does. Alternative medicine fills the gap when Western medicine falls short.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

In the end, the mothers will make the choice they deem the best for her child and her family.

Barbara S.

We've seen this kind of corporate take-over before... when priests came with conquering armies from a different world, and attempted to stamp out the traditional religious beliefs of generations of people in the Americas, and when the settlers from Europe came to conquer the American Indians so we can have it for ourselves. Now we're using medicine and laying guilt on poor nations to achieve the same kind of control for the pharmaceutical companies... along with our religious beliefs which do not incorporate the fact that a third of our American Citizens are not yet accepted for their natural birthrights.

There is room for the traditional AND the future. If not for scientists learning about healing plants from the "dumb natives" in other Lands, they wouldn't have been able to develop (synthesize) the drugs we all pay so dearly for today. And unfortunately, the chemical-based drugs are not nearly as pure or effective as the original plants.

We must learn to strike a balance between nature and nurture.

Cate S.
Cate S5 years ago

It should not be a choice between modern and traditional - surely both should be open to mothers.

Lauren B.

If we are interested in saving kids lives we have to be practical. To charge in and tell people they are wrong about everything they believe isn't likely to have a good result. Getting to know them, being around and helping with injuries and illness, earning the trust of people is more likely to put medical personnel in a position to save babies than direct opposition to traditional medicine.

Howard Evans
Howard Evans5 years ago

Thomas M, yes, everything you described is superstition and wishful thinking. There isn't one single medical study that shows any herbal medicine or other new age crock to be effective. Does one occasionally appear to cure something? Sure. I can't explain it. Can you explain why placebos have a 10% to 75% effective rate? Is Domino a miracle drug?

You know the difference between climate change deniers and vaccination deniers? The climate change deniers will take a century to kill millions of people.

Heather Marvin
Heather Marvin5 years ago

The only thing that came to mind as I read this was Always put the childs welfare first. They are vulnerable and need the protection of the parents from whatever source evil could come from. Way up the good, the bad,and the ugly and lean towards that which is best for the child, with the knowledge and the intuition you possess. Suspicion no doubt has killed many innocent children and people over the years. Modern medicine has its place but even modern medicine can be wrong eg medications taken by women who were pregnant that were later shown to cause miscarriage or deformity in the child. Mothers instinct can play an important role in all of this. I also believe in the power of prayer to the one who created us in the first place. Its tricky to say the least but at the end of the day, the child has to be the first consideration and the one you love the most in these situations.

Thomas M.
Thomas Myers5 years ago

WOW! Talk about one sided pro-corporate healthcare propoganda! I suppose you lump herbal medicines and alternative nutritional medicine in with mumbo jumbo. How about the numerous proven cancer cures suppressed by the FDA? Meghan Lewis, just because the world supports journalists who are incapable of being fair and balanced doesn't mean those are good journalists. They're lousy journalists, and you're one of them.

Thomas M.
Thomas Myers5 years ago

WOW! Talk about one sided pro-corporate healthcare propoganda! I suppose you lump herbal medicines and alternative nutritional medicine in with mumbo jumbo. How about the numerous proven cancer cures suppressed by the FDA? Meghan Lewis, just because the world supports journalists who are incapable of being fair and balanced doesn't mean those are good journalists. They're lousy journalists, and you're one of them.