January 2001


Although traditional medicine is acknowledged as playing a significant role in health care in developing nations, it has been neglected by many health experts and even the World Health Organisation. The neglect of traditional medicine systems by developing-country governments could result in their people having to pay Western pharmaceutical companies to use their own traditional medicines in the future.

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Savar (Bangladesh): Traditional medicine is a pillar of health care in many developing countries, but its value is being threatened by the neglect of many health experts themselves.

Indeed, the low priority given to traditional medicine was reflected in the small number of activists attending a three-hour workshop on the subject at the People’s Health Assembly (PHA) here in December. That workshop competed with 15 others on the same time slot for the attention of the 1,500 health workers, activists and medical practitioners from 92 countries attending the assembly - and managed to attract only about 50 of them.

The humble attendance may well also say a lot about the neglect of traditional medicine on an international and institutional level, including by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This despite the fact that for the last 20 years, WHO has said that about 80% of the world’s people have no access to modern health care services and depend primarily on traditional systems of health care.

Likewise, it said that primary health care for all by 2000, a goal set at an international conference on  health  in  Alma Ata,  Kazakhstan  22  years  ago,  cannot  be achieved without traditional medicine getting equal recognition as conventional Western treatment.

But the Geneva-based world health body, which established a Traditional Medicine Programme (TMP) in 1978, merged it with the Essential Drugs Programme (EDP) in the 1990s. It then made the TMP’s director a mere medical officer who now works with the EDP.

‘The Alma Ata declaration in 1978 specifically said that mobilisation of traditional medicine systems is the only way to make health for all a reality. Therefore it must be integrated with primary health care, but it has never been done,’ observes Dr K Balasubramaniam, adviser of the health and pharmaceutical programme of Consumers International.

‘A lot of people are cured by traditional healing in Africa,’ agrees Elvire Beleoken, president of Educ Actions, a Cameroon-based health NGO. ‘Although a lot of people go to traditional healers, they are not recognised as important stakeholders in the medical system,’ she adds.

Indeed, Mpete Ketchapile of the Women’s Health Project from South Africa says that anti-AIDS campaigners in her country have lately begun to recognise traditional healers as an important element of the preventive health care system. ‘Though they used to be dismissed as witch doctors by the medical profession, now their role in healing is recognised,’ relates Ketchapile.

‘Because they use piercing and shaving techniques in their healing (methods), which could contribute to HIV transmission, they are now trained in hygienic practices.’

Traditional medicine has also made ‘great strides’ in China since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, says associate professor Yaming Chen of Nanjing Medical University. ‘Traditional Chinese medicine has served the people for a long period of time without Western medicine. It is very cheap, very convenient and suits traditional Chinese lifestyle,’ he adds.

Chen says his university now trains practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine, including many foreigners especially from the West.

China and Vietnam are the only two countries in the world where traditional medical systems are officially recognised as being on par with Western medicine. The Chinese gave this recognition in 1949, and Vietnam in 1961.

Balasubramaniam, one of the speakers at the traditional medicine workshop here, says these measures were taken on ideological grounds to achieve greater self-reliance in health care. He regrets that other countries, especially in Asia, did not take similar steps.

Amid the neglect by many governments and health institutions, it is Western pharmaceutical companies and universities that are now showing a greater interest in traditional medicine, with an eye on the potentially huge profits from it in the future.

‘With the World Trade Organisation (push for patent rights), it is the patenting of community knowledge that is in danger,’ warns Balasubramaniam. ‘They bring their ethno-botanists, pay a little money and talk to the community leaders, not so much in villages but in tribal areas.’

He explains that the ethno-botanists, in collaboration with tribal leaders, collect all the plants in the area and take them to their home-country research centres, where they find valuable molecules and patent them.

‘More importantly, they can patent the natural substances for the treatment of a particular disease,’ adds Balasubramaniam.

Beleoken is also worried about this trend. She says that many African universities are doing research in medicinal herbs available in the continent - and Western multinational companies are getting increasingly interested in traditional healing methods in Africa.

‘If researchers are not given enough incentives, they could go out with the results. It is a sensitive issue in Cameroon,’ adds Beleoken.

Geo Jose of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements in India agrees that due to the neglect of traditional medicine systems by developing-country governments, their people could end up having to pay Western companies to use their own traditional medicines in the future.

‘More than 65% of Indian people depend on indigenous medicine. Access to and control of indigenous medicine should be with local communities - that’s our stand,’ he says in an interview.

He adds that multinational companies, with the collaboration of local officials, are already in the process of patenting knowledge that has been with local people for centuries. ‘We have to fight it as a political issue to change the policies of our government. They need to change their liberal economic policies,’ says Jose.

Balasubramaniam explains that it is the commercialisation of medicine that is at the root of the problem, and which has led to the failure to implement WHO’s Alma Ata declaration. He says it is the health ministry, not the finance ministry focused on revenue-making and economic liberalisation, that must have control over a country’s health policies.

Already, Balasubramaniam says: ‘The privatisation of health care has turned medicine away from preventive health care toward an industry of high-tech curative capital-intensive care (where traditional healing systems get a low profile).’ - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Kalinga Seneviratne is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.