A Salute to the Sudanese Medicine Men

One might expect that the Sudanese medicine men mentioned below, might have undermined the British physicians, as potential competition. So either there is more to the story than is sketched below, or else these Sudanese medicine men in 1939 placed the mission of saving lives, above their own narrow short-run self-interest. If it was the later, then they deserve our belated salute.

(p. 236) Meningitis was a vicious disease. The death rate had always been high, and nothing they did had much effect. The British physicians concentrated on nursing the sick and trying to limit the spread of the disease. The only thing different this year came in the form of three small sample bottles of sulfa that had been sent to their clinic for the treatment of strep diseases and pneumonia. Strep diseases were not the problem of the moment in Wau. This meningitis was caused not by strep but by the more common cause, a related germ called meningococcus. Still, they had the new medicine, they had nothing else, and they had nothing to lose. Someone decided to try it on a meningitis patient.
. . .
(p. 237) . . . There were twenty-one patients in the first group. The doctors hoped to save at least a few of them.
A few days later, all but one were still alive. The physicians immediately wired for more sulfa. Once it arrived, one of the British doctors stayed at the hospital while the other two went village to village, administering sulfa to every meningitis patient they could find. They asked the help of local “medicine men,” as they called them, tribal healers whose dispensation was needed before the natives would accept treatment. The Sudanese healers knew how deadly the disease was. They told their people that the physicians had “magic in a bottle.” They told them to take the shots. The physicians traveled day and night, injecting patients in grass huts, under trees, and along roadsides, The results, they wrote, were “spectacular.” Within a few weeks, they treated more than four hundred patients. They saved more than 90 percent of them. They knocked out the epidemic before it could get started.

Source:
Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
(Note: ellipses added.)

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