Healing in Small Doses

17 Apr, 2013 | Alan Pierce

Health & Science

Traditional and Western medicine have a strong foothold in Bolivia, so where does a growing alternative medicine like Homeopathy fit in?


Photo: Alan Pierce

From traditional healing, to Western medicine, to alternatives like homeopathy, Bolivians have a diverse collection of healing options to choose from.

In this family of healing alternatives, traditional medicine could be said to represent the sage parental figure, with centuries of healing techniques and accumulated knowledge behind it. Western medicine is more like an adolescent maverick; confidently churning out innovative cures, sometimes so swiftly that suspect side-effects are quickly glossed over.

Then there is homeopathy, an adopted member of the Bolivian medical family, locked out of the economic household and relegated to the kid’s table during important dinner conversations. And yet, as it gradually establishes a Bolivian identity, it does so through an effective mixture of personal healing experiences, the word-of-mouth referrals that follow. Not to mention a small group of dedicated professionals, patiently fighting to find a more prominent place for homeopathy in Bolivia’s medical family tree.

According to La Prensa, a Bolivian broadsheet, there are around 30 homeopathic doctors in Bolivia, with about half of those working in the city of La Paz, which is also home to the Homeopathic Medical Association of Bolivia, and the only Bolivian homeopathic remedy production and distribution centre, the Hahnemann Laboratory.

This small laboratory houses several offices, a room lined with homeopathic products at various stages of production, and a mysteriously palpable passion for homeopathic practice in the air. In the presence of Ronald Peterssen, the jovial General Manager of Hahnemann Laboratory, I was able to witness this passion first-hand as he exuberantly described the development of homeopathic medicine in Bolivia.

‘This laboratory was founded in 1983 and since then has grown both in the reach of its distribution and in its public visibility’, Peterssen explained. His optimism sparkled as he relayed numerous anecdotes regarding homeopathic healing, as well as through his expansive knowledge about homeopathic remedies and treatment. 'With every new patient, and every subsequent healing, I fall more and more in love with this medicine. To me, homeopathy is the most perfect medicine in the world. And I think Bolivians, as well as the medical community, are increasingly starting to see this too.'

The theory behind this ‘perfect medicine’ originates from the work of the 19th century German physician the laboratory is named after, Samuel Hahnemann. Homeopathic remedies treat the human being holistically, focusing on addressing the cause of symptoms rather than simply attacking the symptoms themselves.

‘Homeopathy uses the law of similarity’, explains Dr. Joseph Henao, a highly regarded homeopathic doctor and director of the Children’s Hospital in La Paz. ‘Homeopathic remedies contain minute amounts of substances that cause symptoms, which when used in these highly diluted amounts, helps cure those same symptoms’.

He explains that since an onion causes symptoms like a runny nose, a homeopathic remedy for that symptom could contain highly diluted amounts of onion.

According to the Society of Homeopaths, some aspects of Western medicine use this same principle with medications like Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat ADHD, or in the treatment of allergies, by exposing patients to small amounts of allergens in order to de-sensitize them to the effects of larger doses.

Homeopathy differs from these conventional approaches because it uses only non-toxic doses of the treatment substances. Because homeopathic remedies use such small, diluted amounts of a certain substance (1 drop in a 100), they are non-toxic and have no side effects.

Xímena Bastos, a Bolivian who has been using homeopathic remedies since childhood, tells me she often recommends this type treatment to her friends and family, explaining that the attraction of homeopathic remedies for many Bolivians comes from their holistic focus.

‘Bolivians seeking homeopathic remedies are looking for something that will heal them from the root of the problem, not just the symptom’, she explains, ‘those who are disenchanted with modern medicine’s symptom-oriented approach seek a more holistic model and find that homeopathy fits that bill’.

Are homeopathic remedies the be-all-end-all solution for health problems? Xímena is the first to say, ‘Of course not’, but asserts also that neither is modern or traditional medicine. For her, a combination of complementary approaches is most effective, as she emphasizes that maintaining an openness to multiple modes of treatment may be the most salutary attitude.

For most Bolivians, however, there is not an openness to alternatives like homeopathy. Since homeopathy, which originated in Germany, is so foreign to the local context, Ximena explains that, ‘the people who are open to it, and seek it, are usually only those who are more worldly in their experience; either they have lived in foreign places, have family who have done so, or have travelled a lot’. In other words, an openness to a form of healing like homeopathy greatly depends on the diversity of one’s familial, social, and cultural personal history.

Part of this personal history, which has played a key role in homeopathy’s growth in Bolivia, involves the informal word-of-mouth referral process among family, friends, and colleagues.

This referral process, based on first-hand experience, may in fact be homeopathy’s greatest ally. Dr. Henao explains, ‘we don’t do any advertising at all for homeopathic treatment. It’s something I can suggest to a patient, but most of the time we receive patients requesting homeopathic options based on advice from their friends or family members’.

Dr. Henao also notes that Bolivians end up in his consulting room for homeopathic healing, ‘when other avenues have failed, or there currently is no established cure in other medicinal realms (i.e. cancer, lupus). They are desperate and looking for more options’. This coincides with accounts given by traditional healers, collected elsewhere in this issue.

From its attraction as a form of holistic healing, to success stories that spur the mainstream practice of homeopathy, the discipline’s role in Bolivia’s medical milieu is perhaps best described as a complementary option that is growing in popularity. However, what may still be stunting the growth of a clear homeopathic identity in Bolivia is not just the perception of its medical value, but the public perception of what it should cost.

According to Dr. Peterssen, ‘to me, it is not an elitist medicine. Our homeopathic remedies are very cheap, and when people hear it only costs something like 20 pesos, they laugh, but medicine does not have to be expensive to be effective’.

On the other hand, a homeopathic consultation with Dr. Henao may cost as much as a conventional medicine consultation, a surprise to many Bolivians since they assume alternative therapies are cheaper than visiting a doctor, perhaps a sign that they’re not valued as highly.

Xímena offers her perspective explaining that, ‘often, Bolivians expect alternative medicine to be cheaper than Western medicine, but in the end you are still paying for someone’s time, their talent, and their knowledge. And often you receive more attention from homeopathic doctors than their busy Western medicine counterparts’.

These perspectives highlight an important facet of homeopathy’s struggle for recognition in Bolivian medical and lay circles, in spite of its growing popularity among its users. The general public’s expectations around the cost of these services imply they’re still perceived as medicinally inferior.

Perhaps this perception is inevitable, as value is so often judged in monetary terms. Dr. Henao laments that, ‘there is very little economic support for homeopathy, and it needs someone or something with influence to support it both monetarily and socially’. However, what may change this lack of support, and what appears to be changing this perception of inferiority, is the commitment and testimony from homeopathy patients.

Thus, while homeopathy still appears to be in an adolescent phase, slowly developing a Bolivian identity, the steady surge of users and interest indicates homeopathy’s growing presence as an important complement to the Bolivian medical family.

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