The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, killed an estimated 230,000 people, wounded many more, and left a reported one million homeless.1 During the immense and ongoing recovery effort, individuals and organized groups have been incorporating natural and traditional medicine into their activities.
News reports immediately following the disaster documented displaced Haitians sitting in a field and boiling herbal remedies to use as infection preventatives, as well as people walking through the streets while sniffing crushed herbs, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum, Lamiaceae), to ward off the surrounding stench.2,3 Reports also noted that Vodou* practitioners cared for the wounded and sick amidst the slow-moving pace of conventional medical aid.4
“Vodou medicine is very active today in treating patients, even those with broken bones or [collapsed] organs,” said Max G. Beauvoir, PhD, founder of the Temple of Yehwe in Haiti (e-mail, January 25, 2010). The Temple of Yehwe aims to foster understanding of Vodou.5
Prior to the earthquake, conventional Western medicine was available in the capital of Port-au-Prince and other large cities, but such treatments were not easily accessible to the majority of the population, especially those living in rural areas.6
“Haitians fend for themselves,” said Nicole Miller, a mambo, or Vodou priestess of the Temple of Yehwe (e-mail, January 27, 2010). “The Haitian people have been using herbal medicines for generations and will continue to do so. It is our tradition and has always been a safe and better way for healing—physically and spiritually.”
The system of traditional medicine commonly used in Haiti includes 3 main levels of practice, believed to work synergistically and with consideration to the connection between a person’s mind, spirit, body, society, and universe. The most prevalent and “simple” level includes non-professionals, such as family members or close friends, who recommend herbs or infusions based on a moral responsibility to others. The middle level includes professional healers, such as hugans or mambos (Vodou priests and priestesses), who serve as guardians of ancestral knowledge and tradition, as well as doktè-fèy (leaf doctor), fanm-chaj (midwife), and ganga (healer). The highest level of expertise is referred to as a “masterly medical system” and is based upon a dynamic life energy force that can be tapped into by professionals to cure certain ailments. Professional healers use herbal baths, teas, infusions, and ointments in order to add to or detract from a patient’s energy.
This complex system of traditional medicine is similar to customs practiced in some neighboring countries and islands, and it features contributions from African ancestors and indigenous groups. Treatment can vary depending upon the plant life of the region in which it is practiced. In some of these cultures, it is often considered essential to collect herbs from the wild only after proper respect has been given to the plant through dance, song, or monetary payment.
Though some research shows that Vodou-based herbal medicine can be used to treat illnesses, infection, pain, and other ailments,7 the current body of research and documented information on Haitian traditional and Vodou medicine is sparse. According to American ethnobotanists writing in 1995, the religious, cultural, and political atmosphere in Haiti has made studying the country’s enthnomedicine difficult.8
Some US-based natural medicine organizations began conducting relief efforts in Haiti in early 2010, using herbal treatments learned in their own training, as well as Haitian-inspired herbal remedies.
Herbs for Orphans, a US nonprofit, has been supplying Haitian orphanages with herbs and nutritional dietary supplements for the last 2 years. After the earthquake, the organization partnered with Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans, Louisiana to form Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR), a network of individuals and organizations working to help the people of Haiti. As of February, MADR had sent 4 aid teams to Haiti, which have been working with foreign and Haitian medical professionals and volunteers.
One week after the earthquake, Thomas Easley, a registered herbalist and board member of Herbs for Orphans, flew to Haiti with 4 emergency medicine technicians on a private charter jet.
Other than dispensing some vitamins and using little bits of herbal salve and tinctures as anti-infection agents, he mainly relied on conventional emergency medicine products and treatments. At one temporary clinic, however, Easley used a Haitian herbal remedy to treat a man diagnosed with renal colic who was experiencing severe pain. With no more pain-killing pharmaceuticals left, Easley had the patient chew on some sour orange fruit juice mixed with crushed-up castor leaf (Ricinus communis, Euphorbiaceae), which a Haitian family let him collect from their garden a few days earlier (T. Easley, oral communication, February 18, 2010).
“He was out of pain in about 10 minutes,” said Easley.
Easley left Haiti after 2 weeks, although other herbalists from MADR remained after his departure. He mentioned a desire to return to Haiti to visit local orphans and work on setting up a permanent herbal clinic and a mobile integrative clinic in rural Haiti. Some herbal products have been donated to Herbs for Orphans, though more could be used, especially anti-infectious herbs, he said.
The nonprofit Natural Doctors International (NDI), meanwhile, has joined with several naturopathic organizations and schools to form the Haiti Disaster Relief Committee. According to Sabine Thomas, ND, who has partnered with NDI to lead the relief effort, this group includes herbalists, naturopathic doctors, acupuncturists, medical physicians, and a security expert (oral and e-mail communication, January-March, 2010).
Dr. Thomas, whose parents are Haitian and who has family living in Haiti, traveled to Haiti in February to assess the needs of the Haitian people. During her 6-day trip, she met with several organizations currently in the country, including some Haitian-based groups and Ministry of Health members. Dr. Thomas also spoke with Dr. Beauvoir of the Temple of Yehwe, who is interested in collaborating with their relief effort, she said.
“The innate use of traditional medicine will be a huge asset to any naturopathic medical relief effort in Haiti,” she said.
Dr. Thomas spent most of her time in Haiti in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and traveled into the city center a few times. “From mile to mile to mile, it looked like the city of Port-au-Prince had been bombed,” she said.
Based on her brief assessment, Dr. Thomas said that the medical needs have shifted from emergency treatment to general and physical medicine. Conditions such as mental health issues, insomnia, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are already setting in, and naturopathic physicians who address the mind, body, and spirit could aid in healing these types of multi-factorial conditions that arise in post-disaster settings, said Dr. Thomas.
Additionally, naturopathic doctors often specialize in preventative and chronic care and could address Haiti’s high rate of diabetes and hypertension, which will be accelerated by the complete change in flora and nutrition after the earthquake, she continued.
Though NDI and its partner natural medicine groups could assist in these areas, it is imperative that the effort be structured and have an educated plan of action, she continued. Dr. Thomas reported her findings to the committee on March 15; any further updates were not available by press time.
For more information about these relief efforts, including how to donate or volunteer, please visit Herbs for Orphans’ website (www. herbs4orphans.org) and NDI’s website (www.ndimed.org).
- Zeleny J. Obama promises continued aid for Haiti. New York Times. March 11, 2010;A9.
- McLean J. City ‘must have 20,000 dead, but nobody’s talking about it.’ The Toronto Star. January 20, 2010. Available at: www.thestar.com/news/ world/article/753092--city-must-have-20-000-dead-but-nobody-s-talking-about-it#article. Accessed January 21, 2010.
- Bremer C. Haitians use toothpaste, herbs to block stench. Reuters. January 18, 2010. Available at: www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N18187052. htm. Accessed February 18, 2010.
- Schneider A. Rush of medical aid to Haiti follows history of suffering. AOL News. January 15, 2010.Available at: www.aolnews.com/world/article/ rush-of-medical-aid-to-haiti-follows-history-of-suffering/19318488. Accessed January 27, 2010.
- What is the Temple of Yehwe? The Temple of Yehwe website. Available at: www.vodou.org/whatis.htm. Accessed January 27, 2010.
- Of herbs. The Temple of Yehwe website. Available at: www.vodou.org/of_herbs1.htm. Accessed January 26, 2010.
- Nicolas G, DeSilva A, Grey K, et al. Using a multicultural lens to understand illnesses among Haitians living in America. Professional Psychology: Research and Politics. 2006:37(6);702-707.
- Paul A, Cox P. An ethnobotanical survey of the uses for Citrus aurantium (Rutaceae) in Haiti. Economic Botany. 1995:49(3);249-256.