WHO organizes first traditional medicine summit

WHO organizes first traditional medicine summit

Traditional medicines are the “first port of call for millions of people worldwide”, the UN health agency said, with talks in India bringing together policy makers and academics aiming to “mobilize political commitment and evidence-based action” against them.

“WHO is working to build evidence and data to inform policies, standards and regulations for the safe, cost-effective and equitable use of traditional medicines”, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the opening of the summit.

Traditional medicine can bridge the health care “access gap”, but it has value only when it is used “appropriately, effectively and most importantly, safely based on the latest scientific evidence”, Tedros previously warned.

But the global health agency has come under fire from online critics who accused it of providing scientific validation for pseudoscience after asking followers in a post whether they had used a variety of treatments, including homeopathy and naturopathy.

The WHO later said in a post on social media platform X that it had heard of the “concerns” and agreed that “the message could be better articulated”.

The two-day WHO Global Summit on Traditional Medicines took place concurrently with the G20 health ministers meeting in the Indian city of Gandhinagar.

“We need to face the very important real-life fact that traditional medicines are very widely used,” Nobel laureate and WHO Science Council chair Harold Varmus told the summit via video link.

“It is important to understand what ingredients are actually in traditional medicines, why they work in some cases… and most importantly, we need to understand and identify which traditional medicines are not working”.

The summit, which will become a regular event, follows the opening last year of the WHO Global Center for Traditional Medicine, also in the Indian state of Gujarat.

– Lack of regulatory oversight –

While traditional medicines are widely used in some parts of the world, they also face harsh criticism.

The United Nations health agency defines traditional medicine as the knowledge, skills and practices used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose and treat physical and mental ailments.

But many traditional treatments lack proven scientific value and conservationists say the industry is driving a rampant trade in endangered animals – including tigers, rhinos and pangolins – threatening the existence of entire species.

The use of home remedies has soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, including a green herbal drink based on Artemisia that Madagascar’s president is promoting as a medicine.

The plant has proven properties in the treatment of malaria, but its use to fight Covid has been scorned by many doctors.

In China, traditional medicine has a remarkable history, but Europe’s top medical body previously required it to be subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as conventional medical methods.

“The development of knowledge in traditional medicine must be carried out to the same rigorous standards as in other areas of health,” WHO head of research John Reeder said in a statement.

Of the 194 WHO member countries, 170 countries recognize the use of traditional and complementary medicines as of 2018, but only 124 countries are reported to have laws or regulations for the use of herbal medicines – while only half have national policies on these methods and medicines.

“Natural does not always mean safe, and centuries of use is no guarantee of efficacy; therefore, scientific methods and processes must be applied to provide the strong evidence needed,” WHO said.

About 40 percent of the currently approved pharmaceutical products used are of “natural origin”, according to the WHO, which cites “essential medicines” derived from traditional medicine, including aspirin, which is formulated using willow bark.


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