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Clinician spreads TCM awareness in Africa

Acupuncturist spent 12 months in Benin treating locals and educating medical practitioners

Tian Tong has been practicing acupuncture for more than 30 years, but his most recent efforts were special-treating the people of Benin with traditional Chinese medicine.

A graduate of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Tian was working as a TCM clinician at the General Hospital of Ningxia Medical University in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, specializing in acupuncture and massage therapy, when he decided to accept the challenge.

In December 2019, Tian heard that TCM doctors were needed for a medical assistance team heading to Benin in West Africa, and he applied without hesitation.

"I heard that the living conditions in Benin were not very good, and there were many mosquitoes, but I thought that working in Africa would be a special memory so I applied," Tian said.

Supported by his 80-year-old parents, Tian headed to Benin with the goal of spreading knowledge about traditional Chinese medicine.

Getting started

When Tian and his co-workers arrived in Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, in December 2019, TCM wasn't well-known to local residents. "While treating Chinese people here in Benin, we also wanted local residents to know more about TCM," he said.

Tian and three colleagues from Ningxia were assigned to work at a community hospital in the capital. To get people familiarized with TCM, they decided to initially treat patients for free.

"We talked with the head of the community hospital and posted flyers at the registration and cashier desks explaining how acupuncture works and what kind of illnesses can be treated with TCM," Tian said.

"However, because of the potential risk of the novel coronavirus we limited the scale of promotions and the number of patients for each day."

Benin's weather is humid and many people carry heavy loads on their heads which can result in injuries.

"Once I met a pregnant woman using her head to carry seafood weighing about 20 kilograms," Tian said. "I was concerned that she might develop problems in her shoulder and neck."

According to Tian's observations, back, ankle and shoulder pain may be common among locals because of this custom.

TCM is good for easing pain in the body, Tian said. He cited a 42-year-old woman who had lumbago for more than six months before she heard that acupuncture can relieve pain and was treated by Tian and his team.

Their TCM treatment room was about 10 square meters and was equipped with two beds, two TDP heat therapy lamps and a dozen cupping jars.

Tian said some patients undergoing treatment for the first time are confused about the procedures.

"Some patients don't understand that acupuncture needles are applied to their hands for lumbago. We need to explain this to the patients and ask them to relax," Tian said.

"Sometimes two translators are needed because not all locals speak French. This happens quite often during treatment."

The free acupuncture lasted till March last year, but when the patients had to pay the equivalent of 35 yuan ($5.40) for treatment fewer came to the clinic.

"The price is lower than in China, but might still be too expensive for locals," Tian said.

He also taught TCM to local doctors with an emphasis on acupuncture, massage and cupping-jar treatment.

"At first, they were afraid of the long needles," he said. "We taught them on models of hands and that eased their fears. The doctors became increasingly confident and interested in TCM as they saw how we cured patients using needles."

Life in Benin

Living conditions in Benin are not as good as at home, Tian said.

"I did some research before coming here, and was fully prepared psychologically," he said. "One problem that bothers me is that there are too many mosquitoes," he said, adding that an electronic mosquito swatter is a must.

"We need two people to prepare a meal; one cooks and the other kills mosquitoes."

Tian was a member of the 24th group of Chinese medical experts sent to Benin. He worked there for more than a year and returned to Ningxia on Feb 6.

During his time in Benin he had used TCM to treat more than 1,000 patients.

"I hope TCM will benefit more people in Benin after I go back to China," he said. "In the future, maybe the Benin government can send medical staff to learn Chinese medicine in China."


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