Macenta, Guinea - In Guinea, a land where witchcraft is sought for curing illness more than science, medicine men say the Ebola epidemic would have been over by now had they been properly included in the outbreak response.

From broken bones, to impotence, to madness, these traditional healers say they have a potion, spell or touch for many ailments Western doctors can't treat.

But there's only one cure for Ebola they say - knowledge.

In the forest region of southeastern Guinea, where the virus was detected last March, disseminating information using modern technology has proved challenging.

Villages in the forest region of southeast Guinea are difficult to reach [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

Karamoko Ibrahima Fofana, president of the association of traditional healers in the town of Macenta, said guérisseurs, as they are known, have unique access to remote villages.

"Guérisseurs are often the first port of call for the sick," said Fofana, 69, who is also an imam at the central mosque in Macenta, a hot, dusty town carved out of the forest.

"We could have spread information on how to protect against Ebola or told people with symptoms to seek help in the treatment centres."

Instead, the traditional healers were sometimes accused of spreading the deadly virus.

A man buys shoes from a street vendor in Gueckedou, the town where the Ebola outbreak began [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

After all, it was the claim of a guérisseur in Sierra Leone that she could cure Ebola that drew the first Guinean victims across the border, Fofana recalled.

Ebola has infected more than 23,000 people in West Africa and killed about 9,000, nearly all in the three worst-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. It is transmitted through blood, vomit, diarrhoea and other bodily fluids.

Health officials are exploring ways to prevent similar disease outbreaks around the world, with epidemics expected to be a focus at a global conference on risk reduction in Japan later this month.

Fofana admits the guérisseurs in his association didn't know what Ebola was at first, but after training from United Nations staff they were keen to spread information - and not the virus.

A Red Cross worker in Nzerekore in southeast Guinea removes metal grave markers [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

"If a guérisseur has been trained on Ebola and is then caught treating a suspected case, they are fined 50,000 GNF ($7), stripped of their membership, and reported to the police," he said.

Jean Marie Dangou, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Guinea, said the "Stop Ebola" campaign, based on modern communication technology, had all but failed.

"For about one year the main communication strategy was built around media, mainly radio and TV, but it wasn't successful. The country is still dealing with tough and repetitive resistance," Dangou said.

West Africa has recorded some weekly declines in new confirmed cases of Ebola since the start of 2015, but resistance in some communities has undermined efforts to end the epidemic.

Gueckedou, in southeast Guinea on the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia, was the source of the outbreak [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

The main message from this outbreak is that communication must be adapted to fit the local culture, Dangou said.

Word of mouth may be a better way of getting information out than modern methods in parts of the world where broadcast signals are weak and power for electrical appliances is scarce.

"Lessons learned from Ebola in Guinea can be applied to cholera, malaria or any other infectious disease in other parts of the world that rely on an oral tradition," Dangou added.

At the start of the outbreak, traditional healers were viewed as part of the problem, rather than being recruited to help halt the disease.

A crowd gathers around a motionless body in Forecariah, Guinea as a French Red Cross team disinfects the area [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

"Our communication was top down and the way we delivered the messages was wrong. We told people to stop doing things without explaining why," Dangou said.

In a shift in policy, community leaders, including healers, are given information and asked to act on it as they see fit. As a result, many have appropriated the "Stop Ebola" messages.

Traditional healers are also supplementing disease surveillance and helping response teams that search for cases.

"Most traditional healers are now aware of the risk of treating Ebola patients. More and more patients are coming to health facilities after a referral from their healer," said Dangou.

The Medecins Sans Frontiers Ebola treatment centre at Donka Hospital in the capital Conakry [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

Given their important role in efforts to stamp out Ebola, the services of traditional healers should come at a price, said Joseph Souro Mamadouno, 58, a Catholic guérisseur from Macenta.

"Ebola is here today, but it could be cholera tomorrow. We can spread health messages, but the government should cover costs of transport, food and the time we take off work," said Mamadouno, who also works at the local agriculture school.

According to the healers' association, some 2,000 herbal practitioners in Macenta, a district with a population of about 300,000 close to the Liberian border, are out of pocket as a result of the Ebola response.

Ebola shares symptoms with less serious diseases traditional healers say they can treat: fatigue, fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhoea. But now these cases are referred to hospitals.

Christian and Muslim traditional healers work together to spread the message on how to protect against Ebola [Misha Hussain/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

Koly Beavogui, 80, an animist traditional healer from Macenta, said she and other female guérisseurs have been reduced to begging for food from neighbours and foraging in the forest.

The scrawny woman, with a wrinkled face and toothless smile, used to treat five to six people a day, but now hardly sees anyone.

"When the sick come to see me, I only ask them to give me whatever they can afford, because we don't buy illness, so we shouldn't have to pay for treatments," said Beavogui, sitting outside her freshly swept, mudbrick house.

But others are fearful of turning Ebola into an industry.

"I'm not in favour of incentives, because it looks like we are in an Ebola business. These people should become agents of change in their own community without any kind of payment," the WHO's Dangou said.

This article is the first in a Thomson Reuters Foundation series ahead of a conference on reducing the risks of disasters in Sendai, Japan, in mid-March

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation