WHO Holds First Traditional Medicine Summit

On Thursday, the World Health Organization launched its first conference on traditional medicine, stating that it hoped to gather evidence and data to enable for the safe use of such treatments.

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

“WHO is working to build the evidence and data to inform policies, standards and regulations for the safe, cost-effective and equitable use of traditional medicine”, WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said as he opened the summit.

Traditional medicine could bridge healthcare “access gaps”, but was of value only if used “appropriately, effectively, and above all, safely based on the latest scientific evidence”, Tedros warned earlier.

However, the World Health Organization has come under fire from online critics for lending scientific support to pseudoscience after asking followers in a post if they have utilized a variety of treatments, including homoeopathy and naturopathy.

Later, in a post on the social networking platform X, the WHO stated that it had heard the “concerns” and recognized that its “message could have been better articulated.”

The two-day WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit is taking place in Gandhinagar, India, with a meeting of G20 health ministers.

“We need to face a very important real-life fact that traditional medicines are very widely used,” Nobel laureate and chair of the WHO Science Council 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 importantly, we need to understand and identify which traditional medicines don’t work”.

The summit, set to become a regular event, follows the opening last year of a WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine, also in India’s Gujarat state.

Lack of regulatory oversight

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

Traditional medicine is defined by the United Nations as “the knowledge, skills, and practices used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose, and treat physical and mental illness.”

However, many traditional remedies have no established scientific value, and conservationists believe the market fuels a rampant trade in endangered animals such as tigers, rhinos, and pangolins, endangering entire species.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, the use of homemade medicines skyrocketed, including a green herbal drink based on Artemisia that was marketed as a cure by Madagascar’s president.

Although the plant has been shown to be effective in the treatment of malaria, many doctors dismissed its usage in the treatment of Covid.

Traditional Chinese medicine has a long history in China, but leading European medical organisations have already urged that it be subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as Western medical treatments.

“Advancing science on traditional medicine should be held to the same rigorous standards as in other fields of health,” WHO research chief John Reeder said in a statement.

Since 2018, 170 of the WHO’s 194 member states have admitted their use of traditional and complementary medicine, but only 124 have reported having laws or regulations governing the use of herbal medicines — and only half have a national policy governing such procedures and medications.

“Natural doesn’t always mean safe, and centuries of use are not a guarantee of efficacy; therefore, scientific method and process must be applied to provide the rigorous evidence required,” the WHO said.

About 40 percent of approved pharmaceutical products currently in use derive from a “natural product basis”, according to the WHO, which cited “landmark drugs” that derive from traditional medicine, including aspirin, drawing on formulations using willow tree bark.

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