Pursuing Health in Amazonia
“Have you seen a doctor for this?” “No.” “Have you ever seen a doctor?” “No.” “Never in your life?” “Never in my life.” The first time I had this conversation, I was speaking with a 39 year old man in the village of Villa Monte Siani, a community located about 5 hours by speed boat from Iquitos, Peru. I quickly learned that medical attention here was rare, and many medical concerns went untreated.
Health among members of rural communities along the Amazon River continues to decline as the spread of communicable diseases and parasites increase due to pollution, poor nutrition and poor sanitation. At the same time, local ancestral knowledge of the correct application of natural medicine has been lost in recent generations as people pursue more fast acting Westernized medicine treatments in the form of pills, syrups and injections. When a shaman, a natural healer, dies, so does his wealth of information. While natural medicines often take days and many treatments to calm symptoms, the pills of modern day medicine begin to work in as little as a few minutes or hours. However, modern day medicines are costly and difficult to access. In a rural villager’s canoe, powered by a small motor, travel time to purchase medicine can take up to 6 to 10 hours costing gasoline, lodging, medical consultation and also days away from their work and families. For these day to day subsistence farmers, these challenges have left many villages without the resources to purchase medicines and without the ancestral knowledge of correct application of natural remedies to address health concerns.
Approximately 25% of the world’s pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest ingredients. Yet, here in Amazonia, rural communities suffer from poor health as large companies pillage the rain forest at alarming rates for the exportation of lumber and gasoline. Meanwhile, rural people lack the funds to buy medicines, many of which were synthesized from their lands. Therefore, many communities along the Amazon in Peru have become dependent on outside aid, lacking expertise and resources within their community to upkeep sustainable health programs. Even though these 135 communities in the Fernando Lorez district are supposed to be cared for by the government’s health program, they rarely receive the necessary medical attention.
Topical fungus, parasites, cough, rashes, arthritis, headache and fatigue are widespread symptoms of many members of these communities in every age range. High blood pressure and anemia is common, even among young children. Insect and other animal bites often quickly become infected. Deforestation and over harvest of native animals, water pollution due to unsanitary latrines, and contamination from foreign oil companies all contribute to poor health in the villages. In the past, when hunting and gathering from the virgin jungle was a more successful venture, rural communities had access to varied nutrition and therefore more stamina for work and stronger immune systems. Without this varied diet and access to clean river water, fatigue and lower resistance to illness adds to health decline.
During a medical clinic visit with our partner APECA, we traveled to rural communities offering medical attention and learning about the most common and pressing concerns in order to discuss methods of prevention and treat severe symptoms. However, as discussed, focusing solely on introducing the rural communities to pharmaceuticals is not a solution. For example, many young women experience symptoms related to anemia, as their main diet of yucca, rice, plantains, chicken, and fish provides little iron and they request vitamin supplements. This is especially a concern for growing adolescent girls, especially as gastrointestinal problems, commonly due to parasites, prevents the adequate absorption of nutrients. While iron supplements may provide temporary nutrition, or ibuprofen may help with headaches, soon the bottles will run out, leaving the patient with the belief that the only thing that can help her health is vitamins and medicines in pill form. It is clear that education is a key factor in the prevention and treatment of these health concerns. Therefore, to help prevent iron deficiency, we spoke to the communities about using young leaves of the yucca plant that, when prepared correctly, are no longer toxic and serve as a concentrated source of iron. Papaya seeds, among other natural remedies, are considered anti-parasitic. Additionally, high amounts of salt are included in many typical meals, contributing to elevated blood pressure. By advising the villages to lessen their salt intake and teaching children not to add more salt to their foods, blood pressure can be regulated without medication.
In order to help improve health care prevention techniques and treatment within each community, we introduced APECA’s Promotores de Salud (Promoters of Health) training program in which two communities elected volunteers will attend free classes at APECA’s study center for three days every other month for a year to learn about health care. These classes educate about methods of preventing common health problems and also lessening the spread of contagious diseases, as well as gift a first aid kit for the village upon graduation. This will combine both teachings of natural medicine and application of Western medicine, allowing for creative solutions based on the symptoms and materials available. Encouraging and affirming communities to elect their own leaders to bring back this knowledge, we believe, is a sustainable way for them to address current health challenges as well as educate all generations.
With all this in mind, I continue to ponder the vastness and complexity of all that is involved in conserving the Amazonian rain forest and the health of its people for generations to come. Certainly, it is a global concern requiring much education, patience and persistence.
Lauren Kabat serves with the Association Promoting Education and Conservation in Amazonia (APECA), located in El Fundo, Peru. She serves as assistant to the Program Director. Her appointment is supported by Week of Compasssion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.”