February 2015

Integrating the Past and the Present: Intercultural Health Care in Bolivia.

With the persistent influence of contemporary medicine on traditional countries, Emilia Wright explores the push for an intercultural approach to healing in Bolivia.

By: Emilia Wright
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Boston – United States


Jardín Botánico Cochabamba
Photo: Emilia Wright

With the rise of contemporary medicine in the pharmaceutical and health care industry, the debate remains of the value of natural medicines. Human kind has relied on herbs and natural supplements for generations, yet now with modern drugs, the validity of traditional healing has dwindled. With the public torn between the two, wouldn’t it be beneficial to integrate both traditional and contemporary health practices?

According to the National Institute of Statistics, 80% or over 6 million Bolivians have called upon natural healer, while 40% solely rely on traditional medicine. Bolivian culture is deeply rooted in tradition, and the distrust of the growing influx of Western health practices has created a mutual exclusion between both practices. This has resulted in Bolivia having the second lowest healthcare rank in South America according to the World Health Organization. The Morales government is working to change this by implementing an intercultural approach to health care.


Naturopathic doctor at La Cancha
Photo: Emilia Wright

In 2007, President Evo Morales invested $10 million dollars into the inter-cultural medicine initiative. This included the Vice Ministry of Traditional and Intercultural Medicine given the task of “promoting, protecting and looking after the preservation and strengthening of traditional medicines in accordance with the knowledge and wisdom of the indigenous cultures.” The new pharmacies will include both contemporary drugs as well as traditional remedies that are formally registered through the Health Ministry. There is a goal of 2,000 ancestral remedies to be validated. Kallawayas, otherwise known as traditional healers will be available for consultation along with contemporary physicians. The Morales government also intends to mass-produce some of the natural medicines for domestic consumption and export.

The new pharmacies will include both contemporary drugs as well as traditional remedies.

Traditional healing, which includes rituals and natural remedies focus on the whole of the person and their connection to the land. “Western medicine focuses on the individual, giving much less importance to the community, psychological and socioeconomic background. Otherwise, the whole of the person,” says Dr. Jeannette Aguirre a consultant at PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) in La Paz. Because these remedies are completely organic, the body is able to metabolize and assimilate them more easily than drugs created by chemicals. “Modern medicine may seem to heal quicker, but I always say, natural medicine is still the most pure; it heals slowly but lasts forever,” says kallawaya Hilarión Suxo.

In La Pampa, a section of the La Cancha marketplace, I ran into a man named San Silvestre who has twenty years experience in selling natural remedies. In an interview with Mr. Silvestre, he describes how traditional medicine is a growing field and should be the first step for treatment. Not only is it cheaper, but it also is less likely to cause larger problems within the body. “Only when natural medicine fails, should you go to a doctor. I have seen patients that go to a doctor first and become intoxicated by the chemical pills given to them for stress, pain or liver.” Mr. Silvestre explained that there are flaws with natural medicine, such as what herbs are in season. Not only does this affect the time scale in which a patient receives treatment, but also affects the quality. On asking what is the biggest problem he sees the most, “Stress. Stress causes bigger health problems and effects everyone.”

The push for integrating natural medicine into the modern health care field has always been relevant. San Silvestre explained that natural sellers and doctors are becoming more mainstream from when he started twenty years ago. Now, this growing field has been put into action. After the launch of the inter-cultural pharmacies in La Paz in 2007, on May 9th, 2014 there was a ceremony for the opening of two expanded health centers right here in southeast Cochabamba. Using traditional and contemporary approaches to care will not only vastly improve health standards, but it could set a worldwide example of the benefits to integrating both methods. The rich cultural and traditional use of medicine in Bolivia has always been important. With the creation of inter-cultural medicine, ancestral healing can be preserved for future generations.

From portraits to landscape by Avelino G. Nogales
The XIX century is the century of massive “popular” painting production in Bolivia. Furthermore, it can be pointed out as the century of popular painting. Dozens of cholo-mestizo painters lived in the main villages: they used to make paintings in small formats over zinc sheets with images of Virgins, Saints and Christ.
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