Conference Paper

Healthcare access and traditional medicine among the Sidama of Ethiopia

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More than 80% of Ethiopia’s population depends on traditional medicine for primary care. The WHO defines traditional medicine as health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal, and mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises, applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose, and prevent illness and maintain well-being. Understanding local medicinal plant use and disease constructs is an important step toward providing culturally appropriate health care to underserved communities worldwide. Documentation of traditional plant medicine also plays a vital role in the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study of this type to be carried out with the Sidama people inhabiting the Southern Nations and Nationalities Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia. This study was conducted with three primary objectives: (1) Documenting medicinal plant use among the Sidama people, (2) Understanding barriers to healthcare access, and (3) Identifying autochthonous disease classifications. Semi-structured interviews and guided field walks conducted through a translator were carried out with knowledgeable informants chosen through snowball sampling. Barriers to medical resource access were analyzed through community mapping with local elders. Medicinal plant specimens were collected, and specimens that were not readily identifiable were brought to the National Herbarium of Addis Ababa University for confirmation. The Sidama use ≥ 47 medicinal plant species from ≥ 30 plant families. These species are used to treat ≥ 36 distinct diseases, including 4 locally acknowledged conditions lacking direct equivalents in Western biomedicine. The category of illness with the highest proportion of plant treatments was gastrointestinal complaints (40%). Follow-up research found 91.8% of the plant species mentioned to have documented pharmacological properties, 40.9% of which matched the disease treated with the plant (excluding diseases with no Western equivalent). ≥ 5 species were found to have previously identified potential herb-drug interactions. More examples are needed of ways in which Western medical researchers and practitioners can collaborate with indigenous peoples to build common knowledge about plants and their traditional medicinal uses. Preservation of traditional medical knowledge is important in ensuring continued access to medicine by underserved communities, preserving culture, reducing biodiversity loss, and promoting environmental health. This knowledge may help the Sidama and other underserved groups achieve the health sovereignty they are entitled to by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our findings could be used in the by government and international health care personnel to become aware of potential herb-drug interactions and culturally appropriate practice with the Sidama. Plant usage data can further provide information for biodiversity conservation by drawing attention to possible overexploitation of non-timber forest products, and mapping species distributions. The traditional knowledge recorded will be made available to the community in a 40 page Amharic language handbook to ensure continuity in cultural knowledge.

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