Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Belief kills

Published:Wednesday | December 10, 2014 | 12:00 AM

André Vaccianna, Guest Columnist

I have had the opportunity to work in various hospitals in Jamaica. Recently, I reflected on some of the cases I have managed in the past and one of the numerous idiosyncrasies I have noted in many patients, regardless of their geographic location ('town or country'), is their faith in non-traditional forms of medicine. On this occasion, I refer in particular to the so-called 'obeah man' or 'modda lady'.

Before I go on, I feel I must preface my arguments with the caveat that Western medicine certainly does not have all the answers, and I am in no way suggesting that alternative, holistic or other non-Western forms of medicine do not have a place in the treatment of ill individuals. In fact, I have personally witnessed and heard of situations from credible sources that simply cannot be explained by conventional science.

That said, current practice of Western medicine is largely evidence-based and subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny. It would be fair to say that the same cannot be said of many, if not most, non-traditional practices.

The basis for this article comes from my personal experience with various patients, but my focus will be on two ladies diagnosed with breast cancer. Both ladies were in their 40s, of average educational background (one was a teacher, I recall) and had good family support. They presented to surgery clinic with a history of breast lumps and were subsequently confirmed to have the unfortunate diagnosis of breast cancer. Surgery was offered, and at that time would have provided a good prognosis and likely allowed these ladies to live fulfilling lives for many years.

As was their right, the patients declined the option of surgery, defaulted from follow-up in hospital and, as was later revealed, opted to seek help from the obeah man instead.

Worse condition

Not long after, both ladies returned to clinic. This time, though, they no longer had small lumps confined to the breast. Their disease had become advanced, and now they had large, ulcerated and malodorous lesions occupying their chests.

Naturally, we inquired as to why they did not return sooner. We were told that the obeah man assured them that the treatment was going well because these terrible masses growing on their chests indicated that 'the cancer was growing out of them' and so they would soon be rid of it. True story.

Not surprisingly, families were soon after mourning the loss of a mother, wife, sister, daughter and a community lost a teacher. Death comes to us all, but surely no one deserves to transition in such a manner.

Fortunately, most of us will never experience the physical and emotional agony of a cancer victim, but I invite you to consider the emotional upheaval that is inherent and, I dare say, inevitable, on receiving the news that one has cancer.

Fear, depression, desperation, hopelessness are but a few of the emotions that may have prevailed in the minds of these two women. Consider the degree of desperation they must have felt to continue believing that they were being cured in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.

This melange of emotions provided fertile ground for the seeds of false hope to be sown. Let's face it: At the heart of this story lies one predominant emotion - hope. The desire to keep hope alive was preyed upon by persons of the basest and most cruel character.

In the realm of possibilities, I suppose it is conceivable that the obeah man truly believed what he spouted, but, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that his intentions were diabolical from the onset.

Whatever the case, ignorance is no excuse, and this kind of practice is reckless at best.

Certainly, it is plain to see that prescribing concoctions to ensure the amorous favour of another or to ward against 'bad mind' is a very different entity from falsely treating someone who has a malignancy.

Failing to inspire

Truth be told, I am not only critical of the charlatans and quacks who do more harm than good, but also of the medical fraternity, of which I am a member. We failed these patients by not being able to inspire hope and confidence in our expertise. The reasons for this are multifaceted and are perhaps best left for another discussion, but the fact remains that we must strive to do more and do better.

The question remains, though, how do we protect the population from charlatans, quacks and those who would seek to prey on the vulnerable?

As with most problems in life, this, too, is a complex issue. Education of the population, revamping of the popular perception of the medical community and its practices, and proper regulation of practitioners of alternative medicine are perhaps the first steps to take.

André Vaccianna is a medical doctor. Email feedback to and

A woman applies obeah oil to assist her in a court case. Obeah is a spiritual system of beliefs and practices which is criticised by mainstream Christianity and the medical profession as dangerous superstition. - File