The U.S. has a decidedly ambivalent relationship with alternative medicine, though large numbers of Americans routinely ingest nostrums from ginkgo to garlic. In Bolivia, by contrast, the status of holistic medicine has risen at even the highest levels of government. President Evo Morales is such a strong advocate that he recently launched a campaign to encourage its use by his countrymen, a majority of whom have neither the insurance nor the cash to pay for conventional health care.
Morales's pitch includes the appointment of a curandero (holistic healer), Emiliano Cusi, as his vice minister of medicine. Cusi plans to set up a national registry of practitioners and establish “cottage pharmacies” consisting of herbalists trained to make natural remedies in their homes, which they sell and distribute to hospitals.
So what exactly is Cusi's background? The Miami Herald reports that before being appointed to the government post, Cusi routinely prescribed folk remedies at his clinic in the city of El Alto. Among the more unorthodox: a pomade made from snake and lizard parts, blood from a dog and various herbs, which he applied to a patient who had sustained nerve and bone damage in a car crash. Cusi and his fellow curandero Antonio Condorichi declared their patient was ready to play soccer four months after the accident.
Other treatments were more mundane, such as a chamomile bath to treat inflammation and coca tea to calm an upset stomach.
The program instituted by Morales is part of a wider public-health effort, which includes providing free medical care to pregnant women and bringing in 1,500 Cuban highly trained physicians to boost the health system.
Indigenous patients in Bolivia sometimes distrust conventional medicine and will arrive at the hospital with their healer to act as an intermediary with physicians. If the current trend continues, patients may not have to take their healer along at all. They may actually be able to go to a hospital or clinic for a visit with the curandero.