Medical anthropology places its main focus on human aspects as opposed to sole biological medical practices. Treatment and cure of disease or illness is evident in various cultures where belief in a major component of wellness. We see this in western cultures when placebos in the form of pills are given to patients and they begin to experience better test results and a belief that the pill has helped them to get better.
Disease and illness have distinct differences, but many of us use the terms interchangeably. While disease is measurable by various tests, a feeling of illness is subjective and may or may not be measurable depending on the source of the illness. These are some of the kinds of issues that medical anthropologists study and assess.
On a broader plane, they are concerned with health care, epidemics, and endemic conditions as related to health.
Epidemics are contagious diseases that spread rapidly until all affected people die or begin to recover. In the beginning stages the disease spreads quickly but begins to taper off as people enter the recovery stage. Medical anthropologists chart the rise, duration, and peak of the disease and analyze the results. In the recovery stage, the charts resemble a bell curve as the duration and number begins to fall.
Early epidemics were plagues, malaria and diseases such as measles and chicken pox. Statistical experts say that indigenous people of North America were wiped out with these diseases and viruses, for which they had no immunity, as much as they were killed in the wars with colonists.
Certain diseases are culture specific. One such disease is Kuru which is a disease of the brain and nervous system. The only place this disease is known to exist is in the eastern New Guinea Highlands. There is no known cure for people who contract this disease display symptoms of palsy, loss of motor control and death usually occurs between 6 and 12 months.
In the study of different cultures and their medical beliefs, it was noted that many times the illness was self correcting. People who placed their faith in certain healing practices that were not based on medical knowledge or scientific practices experiences wellness through traditional ethnic practices. They concluded that folk cures were effective in certain settings due to the comfort level of the participants.
Further, many of the plants and indigenous medicines are effective in curing or treating conditions such as cancer and other diseases.
The modern epidemic of AIDS/HIV is still under study as medical anthropologists learn to control and seek a cure for the global epidemic.
The scope of medical anthropology goes well beyond diseases and seeks to gain understanding of cures based on the humanity of its subjects.