He is known as “Ambassador” for his work as US President Jimmy Carter’s United Nations Ambassador from the United States. He is “Congressman” as Georgia’s first, post-Reconstruction, black member of the US House of Representatives. He is “Mayor” for his two terms in the 1980s guiding Atlanta into prominence as an international city. Those with longer memories will know him as “Reverend” and as “Executive Director” with the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference when in the 1960s he gained prominence nationally as a close friend and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. Few know that this same individual, Andrew Young, presently 86-years-old, is now exerting his influence as an ambassador and advocate for traditional African medicine – and, in particular, for a Senegalese-based, global scientific and educational institute devoted to that work, PROMETRA International-Promoting Traditional Medicine. (Note: This article is a first in a series exploring the intersection of integrative health and global traditional medicine, with a focus in Africa on the work of PROMETRA.)
In early December, I interviewed Young via a prior connection with a member of the Andrew J. Young Foundation board of directors, Virginia “Ginger” Floyd, MD, MPH. Floyd is an associate professor at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) who previously worked with the Ford Foundation’s Africa investment in the challenging years of the AIDS/HIV breakout and subsequently with the Kellogg Foundation. Through her foundation work, Floyd learned of PROMETRA and the Senegalese traditional medicine practitioner and gynecologist who founded the organization in 1971, Erick Gbodossou, MD, on whose board she and Young each serve.
The occasion for the interview was the November 28, 2018 inaugural conference of the MSM’s new Office of Global Health Equity. The conference’s morning agenda featured a trio of National Institutes of Health directors. Young and Gbodossou then followed as part of a panel on “Complementary and Integrative Approaches to Global Health and Wellness.”
The Skype interview exceeded the 30 minute promise Floyd used to corral Young. It proceeded into many surprising directions and prompted this initial foray into the challenges and opportunities posed by the assumption in the WHO’s global traditional medicine strategy 2014-2023 that primary care for all requires expansive consideration and integration of traditional medicine products, practices, and practitioners. The immediacy of such a strategy on the African continent was made evident in a recent systematic review of analyses of traditional medicine use in sub-Saharan Africa that found over 90% of people in Nigeria and Ethiopia and just under 60% of all of those across the multiple surveys use traditional medicine as a routine part of their care.
Young shared a memory of how he has experienced the reception of African traditional medicine among biomedical academics and scientists. When asked to describe what African traditional medicine includes, Gbodossou will tick off a list of 8 or 10 practices:
The Western medical scientist will typically listen to the multiple contributions, perhaps with curiosity. But the scientists will gravitate to “herbs” as the agents that make the most sense in the pharmaceutical-dominated biomedical mind.
It’s not what Young and Floyd find most compelling. In the Young-narrated 2016 video Strong Medicine: The Secret Power of African Healing, he shares his personal interest in the broad array of services. He dates his passion as an ambassador to his first visit to Gbodossou’s Malango Center for Experimental Traditional Medicine (CEMETRA) in The Fatick, Senegal in 2003: “Trying to understand the mysteries of medicine and not limiting myself to what we believe in the United States has been fascinating to me.” He speaks of the stereotyped notions of “voodoo” in the United States: “You may be surprised that the literal translation of ‘voo’ is ‘peace’ and ‘doo’ is ‘world.'” Every other year Young and Floyd work with PROMETRA to organize visits to West Africa to explore the medicine. These are timed to include the annual January 10 Voodoo Day Celebration in Benin. “What we call voodoo or faith healing,” says Young, “is a genuine knowledge of traditions that are 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 years old.”
Young sees himself and Gbodossou as bridge builders “between the past and the future” of health care. Gbodossou urges – as the WHO strategy does implicitly – that moving forward with the best of health care requires reaching back to connect to traditional practices. For Young and PROMETRA, gaining both respect and interest from the likes of the NIH leaders who graced the morning schedule of the recent MSM Office of Global Health Equity conference for the entire breadth of African traditional medicine practices means meeting them where they are most comfortable. The easiest place to connect is the herbs. And Young and Gbodossou have a story of the power of herbal medicines as anti-viral agents to share.
The evidence Young offers about Gbodossou’s use of herbal medicine is at once exciting and frustrating. Young had asked Gbodossou what African healers used for HIV. Gbodossou shared a regime that includes living in a supportive community, eating three meals a day and drinking a tea made of a combination of 5 herbs. Young describes it this way: “There are no pills, no short cuts. They have a porridge you eat in the morning, plus a vegetable soup in the night. And the take the tea. They dance at sundown. The dances are very important.”
Gbodossou said they have had a great deal of success. A grant to PROMETRA from the Ford Foundation allowed a team to do a six month study, then another a 5-year follow-up on 62 HIV-positive individuals. While the results are unpublished, the findings were that all but one of the subjects were still alive. The exception had died in a traffic accident. Informal follow-up 10 years later found at over two-thirds still alive with many of those who died similarly through issues unrelated to their HIV.
What’s going on here? More remarkable than finding the HIV-positive individuals in apparent good health was that analysis of the blood of the 61 found no detectable HIV. In the documentary Young narrates, subjects tell of painfully passing brownish urine for a time while being treated, until the urine eventually runs clean. (See starting at 18.00 minutes of Part II here.)
Young and Floyd arranged to have the herbs analyzed for potential anti-viral activity in labs at MSM under the direction of Michael Powell, PhD, associate professor in MSM’s Department of Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Immunology. In the documentary, Powell speculates that the combination acts as a “fusion inhibitor – it prevents the virus from binding to the cell in the first place.” Mahfuz Khan, MS, a senior researcher at the lab who carried out the study of the herbs, says that kin her Petri dishes these African traditional medicine agents routinely kill 100% of the virus. Powell’s summary statement sums it up his own disbelief: “There actually is an effect that’s easy to see. It’s pretty startling.”
There are good reasons that we do not know more about these herbs yet. One is that a first effort to stir up interest at the NIH failed. A more challenging issue – that may have influenced the NIH – may be Gbodossou’s commitment to respect the indigenous knowledge that the scientists are exploring. Too often such traditional knowledge of plants has simply been appropriated by pharmaceutical companies. Gbodossou has guarded the names of the plants he uses in his treatment regime. The MSM researchers, for instance, remain blind to the species of the herbs they have been examining. As Khan explains, they are merely “compounds A through E.”
PROMETRA is taking steps to put the venture on better scientific and documented footing. One key move: the not-for-profit has been in discussions with patent lawyers and an application was filed mid-January 2018 by MSM and PROMETRA. Work is also under way with the Georgia Research Alliance, where blinding also remains in place, to sequence the herbs. In Alabama, negotiations with a contractor is beginning for research on macaques. Separate testing of the herbs for possible value with EBOLA is under way with the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease. PROMETRA is also exploring a natural products route.
Yet for now, given the secrecy, there is no published research. Nothing can be cited. Nothing can be replicated by others. It’s impossible to gain credibility in this environment of secrecy, with doubt inflamed perhaps even more due to the powerful preliminary findings.
Young takes a long view. More resources would be better, and PROMETRA and Floyd are working on that. But he is comfortable turning attention to African traditional medicine’s other healing powers of food, of incantation, of song, of ritual and of community that he has experienced. “It reminds me of the black churches and their power in our communities,” says Young. He turns to a specific example: “I asked Dr. Gbodossou what he recommends for people with trouble going to sleep. This is a big issue for a lot of people. He recommends that they dance before going to bed, that it works very well. Dancing is better than taking pills.”
Young is also taken with the use of teas and food as part of the medical regime: “I’d like to be introducing more herbs into the diet. It’s simple to use tumeric on your eggs in the morning.” He urges new partnerships for the health creation he envisions: “Rather than going to war with pharmaceutical companies, let’s work with dieticians and chefs.” As a strategy for health in communities, he urges an investment in creating health workers through technical schools for culinary arts: “The tuition is just $1500 a year and those schools have 95% graduation rate with jobs waiting. We need to get the most creating minds in the medical schools connected to chefs.”
I shared with Young the Teaching Kitchens Collaborative initiative led by Harvard’s David Eisenberg, MD that is working to do what he is proposing. One wonders whether this time may be ripe for some of the rest of Gbodossou and Young’s message about the value of many of the agents for health that make up voodoo.
And of course, an “integrative health” clinical practice already begins to embrace the range of voodoo practices – relatively obscure diagnostic methods, acupuncture, meditation, herbal agents, dietary changes, and the spiritual coaching toward purpose and self-efficacy.
When Young was a member of Congress in the 1970s, he helped put into place legislation that led to the founding of MSM with its community health mission such as was recently expressed in the founding of the MSM Office of Health Equity. His reason: “Medicine was not meeting needs of poor people. We couldn’t afford the Johns Hopkins model. It was getting so poor people couldn’t get sick.” Now, as Young reflects on the troubled waters of health care and medicine at the recent MSM workshop, this pioneer in health creation between the races and across nations quietly places a charge: “We have Morehouse School of Medicine talking about new medicine – and sometimes new is old.”