Mastitis constitutes an important risk factor in HIV vertical transmission. Very little, however, is known on how women in sub-Saharan Africa conceptualise health problems related to breastfeeding, such as mastitis, and how they act when sick. We aimed at filling this gap in knowledge, by documenting the indigenous nosography of mastitis, health seeking behaviour, and remedies for prophylaxis and treatment in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
The study was conducted in the Nouna Health District, rural Burkina Faso. We employed a combination of in-depth individual interviews and focus group discussions reaching both women and guérisseuers. All material was transcribed, translated, and analysed inductively, applying data and analyst triangulation.
Respondents perceived breast problems related to lactation to be highly prevalent and described a sequence of symptoms which resembles the biomedical understanding of pathologies related to breastfeeding, ranging from breast engorgement (stasis) to inflammation (mastitis) and infection (breast abscess). The aetiology of disease, however, differed from biomedical notions as both women and guerisseurs distinguished between "natural" and "unnatural" causes of health problems related to breastfeeding. To prevent and treat such pathologies, women used a combination of traditional and biomedical therapies, depending on the perceived cause of illness. In general, however, a marked preference for traditional systems of care was observed.
Health problems related to breastfeeding are perceived to be very common in rural Burkina Faso. Further epidemiological research to assess the actual prevalence of such pathologies is urgently needed to inform the design of adequate control measures, especially given the impact of mastitis on HIV vertical transmission. Our investigation into local illness concepts and health care seeking behaviour is useful to ensure that such measures be culturally sensitive. Further research into the efficacy of local customs and traditional healing methods and their effect on viral load in breast milk is also urgently needed.