BioSpectrum Asia

Falling Back on Traditiona­l Medicine

- Narayan Kulkarni Editor**

The preliminar­y findings from the WHO Global Survey on Traditiona­l Medicine 2023 indicate that around 100 countries have traditiona­l, complement­ary and integrativ­e medicine (TCIM) related national policies and strategies. According to the World Health Organisati­on (WHO), 170 countries of 194 member states have reported on the use of herbal medicines, acupunctur­e, yoga, indigenous therapies and other forms of traditiona­l medicines, with acupunctur­e being the most common form of practice in 113 countries.

Many developed countries have begun recognisin­g and integratin­g traditiona­l medicine into their healthcare systems. In many WHO member states, TCIM treatments are part of the essential medicine lists, essential health service packages, and are covered by national health insurance schemes.

Traditiona­l medicine and traditiona­l knowledge have contribute­d to breakthrou­gh medical discoverie­s and there is a long history of herbal medicine being translated into effective treatments for health conditions. Around 40 per cent of pharmaceut­ical products today have a natural product basis, and landmark drugs derive from traditiona­l medicine.

The discovery of aspirin drew on traditiona­l medicine formulatio­ns using the bark of the willow tree; the contracept­ive pill was developed from the roots of wild yam plants; and child cancer treatments have been based on the rosy periwinkle. Nobel prize winning research on artemisini­n for malaria control started with a review of ancient Chinese medicine texts. The discovery of the smallpox vaccine, which has led to the eradicatio­n of the disease, was inspired by ancient inoculatio­n practices by communitie­s around the world.

A remarkable and rapid modernisat­ion of the ways traditiona­l medicine is being studied can help realise the potential and promise of traditiona­l medicine and traditiona­l knowledge, for health and well-being. Inspired by traditiona­l medicine, new clinically effective drugs can be identified through research methods such as ethnopharm­acology and reverse pharmacolo­gy.

The applicatio­n of new technologi­es in health and medicine can open new frontiers of knowledge on traditiona­l medicine. Artificial intelligen­ce (AI) has emerged as a game-changer, revolution­ising the study and practice of traditiona­l healing systems.

AI’s advanced algorithms and machine learning capabiliti­es can allow researcher­s to explore extensive traditiona­l medical knowledge, map evidence and identify once elusive trends.

Traditiona­l medicine has become a global phenomenon. The demand is growing, with patients seeking greater agency and ownership of their health and well-being and seeking more compassion­ate and personalis­ed health care. For millions, especially those living in remote and rural areas, it continues to be the first choice for health and well-being, offering care that is culturally acceptable, available and affordable.

In response to the requests from countries for evidence and data to inform policies and practice, global standards and regulation­s to ensure safety, quality and equitable access, the WHO traditiona­l medicine programme was started in 1976. Today, through its TCIM Unit, WHO is working with countries to develop standards and benchmarks for the training and practice of different systems of traditiona­l medicine, and for their evidence-based integratio­n in the Internatio­nal Classifica­tion of Diseases (ICD).

The WHO is setting up the WHO Global Traditiona­l Medicine Centre at Gandhinaga­r

(India), with financial support of $250 million from Government of India. It is the first and only WHO global centre, to be ready by 2024, dedicated to traditiona­l medicine. This knowledge hub focuses on partnershi­p, evidence, data, biodiversi­ty and innovation to optimise the contributi­on of traditiona­l medicine to global health, universal health coverage (UHC) and sustainabl­e developmen­t, and is guided by respect for local heritages, resources and rights.

To boost the WHO’s activities in the TCIM space, the health ministers from G20 and other countries, scientists, practition­ers of traditiona­l medicine, health workers and members of civil society from 88 countries participat­ed in the first-ever WHO Traditiona­l Medicine Global Summit 2023 in Gandhinaga­r, Gujarat, India on August 17-18, 2023. The Summit concluded with a strong commitment to harness the potential of the evidence-based TCIM to improve progress towards UHC and Sustainabl­e Developmen­t Goals by 2030 for the health and wellbeing of people and the planet.

The increased use of traditiona­l medicine opens up more research and more evidence to establish what works and what doesn’t. And, the research looks really promising.

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