Traditional healers, faith healers and medical practitioners: the contribution of medical pluralism to bottlenecks along the cascade of care for HIV/AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa

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Abstract

Objectives

There are concerns that medical pluralism may delay patients’ progression through the HIV cascade-of-care. However, the pathways of impact through which medical pluralism influence the care of people living with HIV (PLHIV) in African settings remain unclear. We sought to establish the manifestation of medical pluralism among PLHIV, and explore mechanisms through which medical pluralism contributes bottlenecks along the HIV care cascade.

Methods

We conducted a multicountry exploratory qualitative study in seven health and demographic surveillance sites in six eastern and southern African countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa. We interviewed 258 PLHIV at different stages of the HIV cascade-of-care, 48 family members of deceased PLHIV and 53 HIV healthcare workers. Interviews were conducted using shared standardised topic guides, and data managed through NVIVO 8/10/11. We conducted a thematic analysis of healthcare pathways and bottlenecks related to medical pluralism.

Results

Medical pluralism, manifesting across traditional, faith-based and biomedical health-worlds, contributed to the care cascade bottlenecks for PLHIV through three pathways of impact. First, access to HIV treatment was delayed through the nature of health-related beliefs, knowledge and patient journeys. Second, HIV treatment was interrupted by availability of alternative options, perceived failed treatment and exploitation of PLHIV by opportunistic traders and healers. Lastly, the mixing of biomedical healthcare providers and treatment with traditional and faith-based options fuelled tensions driven by fear of drug-to-drug interactions and mistrust between providers operating in different health-worlds.

Conclusion

Medical pluralism contributes to delays and interruptions of care along the HIV cascade, and mistrust between health providers. Region-wide interventions and policies are urgently needed in sub-Saharan Africa to minimise potential harm and consequences of medical pluralism for PLHIV. The role of sociocultural beliefs in mediating bottlenecks necessitate adoption of culture-sensitive approaches intervention designs and policy reforms appropriate to the context of sub-Saharan Africa.

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