Sanaa, Yemen – Mohammed Saif turned to herbal and faith-based treatments last year despite doctors warning they would not be safe, or even effective.
The 40-year-old used to take anticholinergics to treat irritable bowel syndrome. But in a country ravaged by war, medical treatment had become nearly impossible for him to access.
“I couldn’t afford to see a doctor, and no one could help me cover the costs of my medical expenses,” said Saif, the sole breadwinner of his family of five.
“I’ve been taking herbs for over a year now and it causes no side effects. The only shortcoming is that they don’t cure most diseases.”
Over the past three years, Yemenis seeking unproven natural remedies has become the norm in many parts of the country, he said, with a growing number looking for a cheaper way to treat their ailments.
But these holistic remedies are far cry from the medical care most Yemenis received before the conflict began.
Ignorance is the reason behind the spread of herbal products. Educated people would not opt for this type of treatment. Only the poor and the illiterate would go to homeopathic centres.
More than 70 percent of the population had access to healthcare before 2015. Now, none of the country’s major hospitals provide the same level of service as before.
The cost of most medicines has also risen sharply with some drugs experiencing a price hike of more than 300 percent, making it unaffordable for most families to obtain treatment.
“Malnutrition and disease are rampant as basic services collapse,” said Meritxell Relano, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen.
“Those who survive are likely to carry the physical and psychological scars of this conflict for the rest of their lives.”
Yemen’s civil war escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition launched a military operation against Houthi rebels after they overran much of the country.
Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed directly by the fighting, while millions have been driven from their homes.
The humanitarian situation has been further compounded by the Arab coalition’s decision to impose tighter restrictions on the country’s ports.
Aimed at stemming the flow of weapons to the Houthis, a de facto blockade has had a debilitating effect on the civilian population, as more than 18 million Yemenis live in rebel-held areas.
According to the UN, the healthcare system has never been more precarious with only 45 percent of facilities left standing, with limited functionality.
“I’m seeing a surge of customers,” said Ahmed al-Sarori, the owner of an alternative medicine centre in Sanaa.
“People are flooding in with skin-related diseases. I give them either a herbal ointment, syrup or powder, and the results are [overwhelmingly] positive.”
Herbs are not the only option Sarori is offering up. He also uses verses of the Quran to assist some of his customers.
“We also treat those suffering from black magic and evil eye,” he said.
“The patient just needs to sit and read a few passages of the Quran. Some are treated after a few sessions. Those with chronic problems, need longer.”
The shift towards alternative medicine comes amid deteriorating economic and social conditions in the country.
The Yemeni government all but stopped funding the public health sector in late 2016, when it decided to shift the Central Bank from the Houthi-controlled capital to the southern port city of Aden.
The situation resulted in many doctors and hospital staff, and about 1.2 million civil servants, not receiving their salaries.
The World Bank said the decision exacerbated the vulnerabilities of the fragile economy with the GDP contracting by 37.5 percent cumulatively since 2015.
Maki Saleh, a science teacher in Sanaa, said employment opportunities in the private sector significantly diminished.
“Some open homeopathy centres to eke out a living and make ends meet. Their purpose is not only in providing health solutions, but also avoiding unemployment.”
An inexpensive alternative to modern medicine, Saleh suggested the rise in herbal medicine was because of exorbitant hospital costs.
“Some people prefer alternative medicine because they can’t afford to pay their medical bills. Unfortunately, they may not benefit [in the long term] and some may die.”
With fighting on the ground showing no signs of abating, and Saudi Arabia continuing to launch air strikes against Houthi targets, the conflict has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported more than one million cholera cases, and there have also been outbreaks of diphtheria, a disease that was once nearly eradicated worldwide.
Naser al-Salahi, a doctor in the capital, said preventable diseases had now become “genuine threats”.
“Ignorance is the reason behind the spread of herbal products. Educated people would not opt for this type of treatment. Only the poor and the illiterate would go to homeopathic centres,” he said.
Salahi blamed the absence of a central government for the opening of unlicensed health centres and the lack of oversight.
“Alternative medicine could be fine for a few cases, but the providers of such services are doing so with a blatant lack of knowledge and only for profit.
“This poses a real danger to people’s health in the future.”