TNHA TAKES THE HEALTH FREEDOM BATTLE TO PARLIAMENT
On October the 29th, more than 300 traditional healers and many other guests crowded into the Old Assembly Hall of Parliament to listen as the Traditional and Natural Health Alliance presented its views on an amendment to the Medicines Act Bill 6 (also known as the SAPHRA Bill) to the Portfolio Committee of Health.
Almost 50 years had passed since the Medicines Act of 1965 was passed in the same Parliamentary building, in the era of stiff suits and white faces. Now, the benches were filled with African Traditional Healers, mainly dressed in the red and yellow of the Traditional Healers Organization.
We began to gather under the statue of Louis Botha outside Parliament around 4.30pm, going-home time for most people. You could hear singing from the taxis before they arrived – and from the first two minibuses red-caped traditional healers emerged, singing and dancing. Soon they were joined by more, and then more. The energy of the crowd grew with the singing and dancing
The police hovered, anxious that this was an illegal gathering with potential to explode. Were they reassured that we were just meeting at the gates as we waited to go in? I’m not sure, but they took some details of where we were going, and watched carefully from the other side of the gate.
By the time we were all settled in the Old Assembly, the seven members of the committee present must have known they were in for an unusual presentation.
First up was Dr Bernard Brom, an integrative medical doctor and specialist in natural medicine, who explained that it was incongruous that one medical paradigm, the biomedical one, should be regulating the medicines of all other health systems, many of which had been around for thousands more years.
The Bill, which introduces for the first time a definition of ‘Complementary Medicine’, is so broad as to include potentially anything you eat or drink for your health. It includes herbal medicines and herbal extracts (such as tinctures) from all traditions, including African traditional healing.
The Bill goes further by encompassing cosmetics, foodstuffs, drugs, herbals, supplements and even medical devices under different “medicine” categories.
The Bill also makes provision for the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) to replace the Medicines Control Council (MCC). This will be a privately-funded regulatory authority with far-reaching powers. The Board will be appointed by the Health Minister.
The THNA’s Anthony Rees pointed out that the safety of natural products could not be compared to that of drugs, the medicines for which the Act was passed after the Thalidomide disaster that caused deformed babies. The risk of health products were miniscule compared to those of pharmaceuticals. (All presentations will be posted on our website in due course).
In her presentation head of the THO and TNHA Exco member Phephsile Maseko asked the question: Why had the traditional healers been sidelined?
Why, seven years after the Traditional Health Practitioners Act was passed, was there no funding to implement the provisions of the Act, making the traditional healers financial orphans, with no way to regulate themselves?
What had happened to the commitment to include the estimated 250,000 traditional healers in South Africa’s formal health sector, which was of service to 27-million people, a major player in healthcare?
Numerous attempts to meet with the National Department of Health on regulations had been ignored, and this was the experience of many stakeholders in the natural health product sector. Frustration was at an all time high. No one likes to be stone-walled!
The TNHA’s legal counsel Adv Robin Stransham-Ford concluded by asking the committee to send the Bill back for re-drafting, to take into account the rights of all traditional and integrative doctors, and their constituencies. The new Act should draw practitioners into the core of the Medicines Act, where they would be able to be effective in making regulations for their own traditions and medicines.
He said the TNHA was willing to launch a legal challenge against regulations for complementary medicines, passed in November 2013 (in advance of this Bill, which created the category!), and would launch a constitutional challenge if this Bill was enacted.
The committee responded with questions, objecting to the tone of the TNHA’s presentation and asking, among other things, about the scientific validity of natural medicine, bringing up safety and efficacy issues. By now it was 8.30pm. There was no time to answer the questions.
WHAT WAS ACHIEVED?
The committee was no doubt rattled, judging by their defensiveness. And many were interested. The Director-General of the Department of Health, Miss Malebone Precious Mtsoso who was present, heard the deep dissatisfaction expressed. An invitation was extended for further discussions with the TNHA. I believe the day was a huge victory for us, and we will be submitting further information to the committee, with a meeting planned for early next year.