female acupuncture model with needles in the shoulder （HELLORF）
Infertility can be stressful and frustrating for couples the world over; but in Zambia, there is also stigma attached to barrenness.
After trying for almost two years, Tamara Chiponge had given up hope that one day she would be able to bear a child of her own.
On the verge of reaching menopause, Chiponge became desperate for a child as she could no longer withstand the intense social stigma and pressure, especially coming from her close companions and family members.
"I used to put on a false smile to the public, but inside, I was hurting. I took care of other people's children [and it got to a] point where my mother-in-law forced me to adopt a two-year-old child," she told ChinAfrica.
Infertility on the rise
Zambia's Health and Nutrition Communication and Advocacy Strategic Plan (2018-21) highlights that gauging from the prevalence of sexually transmission infections alone, it is estimated that both primary and secondary infertility rates in the country are of concern. Gynaecologists say infertility is actually a major public health concern because it affects one's mental well-being, disrupts social bonding, lowers economic productivity and erodes self-confidence.
It is for this reason that Zambia's Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya recently said the situation calls for great investment in comprehensive reproductive health, including fertility services.
"Infertility accounts for 10 to 15 percent of outpatient gynaecology clinic attendance in Zambia, yet access to fertility services is seriously limited due to the high cost of services," said Chilufya.
As in many other societies, in Zambia, the inability to conceive and bear a healthy child is considered to be the fault of the female partner rather than a problem of the couple. The lack of access to effective treatment causes much personal suffering, family discord and social disfunction.
Whyson Munga, Registrar of Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of University Teaching Hospital (UTH), recently noted that infertility is a huge problem in Zambia. Munga said that out of every 100 women that visit UTH seeking gynaecology services, about 30 of them have infertility problems.
Worldwide, both men and women do suffer from infertility, but culturally, infertile women are at risk of social stigma. Health experts say infertility refers to failure of a couple to establish pregnancy after one year of having unprotected and adequate sexual intercourse.
In developing countries such as Zambia, much as infertility is a health condition, it is also a social problem because from the perspective of the individual concerned, many unfruitful women consider that without children, their lives are hopeless.
Chiponge's condition dates back to her mid-20s, when she had a severe ectopic pregnancy (a complication of pregnancy when a fertilized egg grows outside a woman's uterus) somewhere else in her belly, according to medical experts. They state that if left unchecked, the condition is life-threatening as excessive bleeding may lead to death, hence the need for urgent medical care. Consequently, her chances of falling pregnant were negligible, having only one fallopian tube - she lost the other tube after an operation.
As an old adage says, desperate situations call for desperate measures. Chiponge had tried all sorts of medication, not only conventional medicine, including fertility boosters, but also advanced infertility treatment called invitro fertilization treatment and African traditional herbs, in a bid to conceive. But all was in vain.
Feng Kehong works in her clinic (Derrick Silimina)
In Zambia, fertility treatment is prohibitively expensive for most couples, with some people becoming destitute trying to pay for it.
Chiponge was first introduced to acupuncture therapy in 2009 by her younger sister, a friend of Dr. Feng Kehong, a Chinese medical practitioner who runs Zhong Yi Surgery in Lusaka's Roma suburb.
According to Acupuncture.com (a Chinese online medical platform), acupuncture is defined as an age-old healing technique of traditional Chinese medicine in which needles are inserted into energy points on the human body.
"It was in 2009 when I met Feng. Since I desperately wanted a baby, after having failed to conceive for more than 15 years of marriage, I was put on acupuncture therapy for three months and the following year  I conceived," she said, adding she was 46 years old at that time.
Having concerns about infertility in a world that needs vigorous control of population growth may seem odd, but it's a choice that many have no control over.
Nathan Mbewe, a Ndola based teacher, recently survived a protracted stroke because of the acupuncture therapy he got from Feng.
"I had a stroke for some time and might have died had it not been for Chinese specialized treatment I got here," he said, adding that acupuncture worked wonders on him.
Mbewe said he has been recommending anyone with chronic illness to seek acupuncture treatment, and they have reported progressive results. A truck driver based in the Zambian capital of Lusaka is also impressed with acupuncture after having recovered from his swelling feet that almost rendered him jobless.
"Due to the long-distance driving, I used to have constant swelling in my feet," said Andrew Mulenga. "This affected my work, until a colleague advised me to consult Feng to try Chinese medicine after an attempt at conventional medicine failed," he said.
At first, Mulenga questioned whether acupuncture was real and doubted that pricking needles into his body would change anything. But, to his amazement, after a few sessions, his condition started improving.
Feng Kehong in her clinic (Derrick Silimina)
Helping with needles
According to Feng, who has been in Zambia since 2001, initially working as a doctor in two of Zambia's general hospitals before opening her own clinic, she is delighted that a lot of people are being helped through acupuncture in Zambia.
To help her cope with the increase in patients, Feng has trained a local assistance, Nelly Banda, to work with the needles.
Reminiscing about the time when Chiponge, now 56 years of age, came to seek fertility services at her surgery despite her older age, Feng said she was hesitant to help.
"I was hesitant to work on Chiponge; but after recommending acupuncture therapy on her, within a few months, she came back so excited and informed me she was pregnant," said Feng. "You see, a lot of diseases could be treated through acupuncture and I have seen this happen over the years to many patients that I have attended to."
Despite Chiponge having reached menopause, she successfully gave birth naturally to a bouncy baby girl who is now a healthy nine-year-old.
Feng said some of the known diseases that she has treated successfully include hypertension, stroke, diabetes, infertility and sexually transmittable diseases.
Officially, acupuncture has the accreditation of Zambia's medical council, as the Zambian Government recognizes traditional and complementary/alternative medicine.
Although there are no official regulatory measures for recognizing the qualifications of practitioners, the Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia reviews and registers traditional practitioners for licensing and plans are under way to develop such regulations.
Zambia is now considering better utilization of its diverse medicinal plants, a worthwhile lesson learned from China.
(Print Edition Title: The Healing Needles)
Reporting from Zambia
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