Imagine you start to show signs of possible HIV infection: your skin color changes, your immune system is visibly weaker than ever before, and a flu-like feeling just won’t go away. You go to your trusted healer, the traditional healer your family has seen for years, decades, possibly generations. Now, imagine this traditional healer tells you that these symptoms are not due to a blood-borne virus infecting your body, but by a curse a neighbor has placed upon you and your family. His or her treatment will not recommend antiretroviral medications, but to chant incantations and rub medical herbs into an open cut made from a razor. Although this is not heard of as a practice in any area of the United States, no matter how rural, this type of traditional healing is still very common in rural areas of Mozambique and other sub-Saharan African countries. When these traditional healers speak of curses and angered ancestors as the causes for the HIV symptoms, there is an inevitable delay between the first signs of symptoms and the administration of the first antiretroviral medicines. Prolonging this crucial timeframe shows that these traditional healers can undermine efforts of modern HIV treatments, which can harm the patient in irreparable ways, possibly causing the individual to develop AIDS before receiving the medicine he or she needs.

A study led by Carolyn Audet, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Health Policy, focused on sub-Saharan African countries. Over 60% of the rural residents in this study who started showing symptoms of HIV infection visited at least one traditional healer before consulting a trained medical professional, sometimes seeing several healers before any doctors. This caused, on average, a two-and-a-half-time longer delay for receiving the needed medicine, as over 50% of those who saw traditional healers first were initially diagnosed with having a curse placed upon them. With countries like Mozambique having over ten percent of its population infected with HIV (in the US it is roughly 0.6%), mistreatment has become an epidemic of serious concern. These delays can undermine efforts of modern HIV treatments, as many traditional healers are resistant to incorporating Western medicine into their religious and healing practices, which can seriously harm or even cause the preventable death of patients before receiving life-saving antiretroviral medicines.