In Switzerland, traditional healers enjoy comeback

Denis Vipret moves around the circle of 20 people waiting for his healing touch, touching their shoulders and pumping his right hand lightly to transfer its energy to each patient.

Vipret is a star among a soaring number of healers in Switzerland, and during his lightning visit to Geneva he expects to treat some 300 people eager to experience the "magic" in his hands.

"With my left hand I detect what is wrong and with my right hand I heal," says Vipret, a heavyset man wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and clogs.

Switzerland may be home to some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, but it is also proving fertile ground for traditional medicine healers like Vipret, who have been seeing booming business in recent years.

Once shunned as witches, hypnotists, bonesetters, magnetists and herbalists are surfing on the swelling organic wave, experts say, and have gained such acceptance that many Swiss hospitals have even begun referring patients to them.

"We are seeing that more and more people are turning to healers," says ethnologist Magali Jenny, who has written two best-sellers on the subject since 2008.

"There is no other place, in Europe at least, where this subject is as accepted," she tells AFP.

Annie Marie Girard, a 55-year-old French magnetist based in Geneva -- a canton that recognises "spiritual healing" -- agrees.

"In France, if a healer does not succeed at healing a patient immediately, you are automatically taken to court," she says, explaining why she has settled in Switzerland.

According to Jenny, more than 500 largely unschooled healers are active in the French-speaking part of Switzerland alone, which counts just about a quarter of the country's eight million people.

The art of healing is more widely practised in the French-and Italian-speaking parts of the Swiss linguistic patchwork than in the Germanic parts of the country, where people prefer to seek certified doctors, experts say.

Healers also make a better living in Catholic regions of Switzerland, like Jura in the north, Fribourg in the west, Valais in the south and Appenzell in the northeast and central Switzerland, according to the interior ministry's cultural office.

"Many people feel a bit left out of the dehumanising medical establishment, where they feel reduced to numbers. They prefer to turn to healers and more natural methods, since we are in the midst of this green, organic trend," Jenny says.

Healers are so popular in Switzerland that around 70 of them have asked Jenny to remove their names from her books, claiming they could not keep up with the demand they had generated.

Back in Geneva, people have come from far and wide to see Vipret, who charges patients 50 Swiss francs (41 euros, $53) per visit.

When AFP visited, he spent less than a minute diagnosing each patient.

"I see everything: cancer, tumours, AIDS, leukaemia, iron deficiencies," he says.

Vipret, who is unschooled and whose form of healing does not fall into any official category, insists he can protect each patient against pretty much everything for the next 30 days through the power of thought alone.

His patients express wonder at his powers and the heat of his hands.

"He is really impressive," marvels 30-year-old Bertrand Bucher who had brought his pregnant wife to Vipret for a check-up.

Claire, a 70-year-old retired pharmacist who does not want to give her last name, says that Vipret "knows nothing about anatomy," yet she sees him regularly, convinced that he can cure her ills.

Many Swiss hospitals meanwhile not only refer patients to healers; patients and their families can request that a particular healer be brought in to help.

"In emergency rooms, that happens a lot," especially for burn victims or people with bleeding injuries," Fribourg hospital spokeswoman Jeannette Portmann tells AFP.

A number of cantons have officially recognised healing as "a living tradition," and both national and regional medical societies voice little scepticism about the practice.

The recent hype around the profession has meanwhile also drawn its share of quacks to the profession, experts caution, and insurers are pushing for some sort of certification requirement.

Even before the media focus, the profession was not free from charlatans.

Last month, for instance, a self-proclaimed healer in Bern was sentenced to nearly 13 years behind bars for having injected 16 of his patients with HIV-tainted blood.