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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Re-membering traditional medicine

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 Through the adoption of such a position, fallacies about traditional medicine, often spread by the pharmaceutical world that is driven by the profit motive, have been laid bare for all to see. 

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Thus, between 1978 and 1989, the World Health Assembly has passed and adopted at least three resolutions with various recommendations, ranging from the need for regulation to the need for accommodation of traditional medicine in national drug policies and programmes. These and similar efforts that followed in that direction at the level of the United Nations culminated in the establishment of the WHO General Guidelines for Methodologies on Research and Evaluation of Traditional Medicine. Adopted in 2000, these guidelines cover a wide range of issues and are intended to serve researchers, health care providers, manufactures, traders and health authorities. Seven years later, the WHO came up with another guideline, this time, for assessing the quality of herbal medicine with reference to contaminants and residues. The same year, in 2007, the WHO adopted another resolution on good manufacturing practices for herbal medicine. Member States have been urged to implement these guidelines and the WHO is readily available to offer technical assistance. All these are geared towards ensuring safety and efficiency of traditional medicine.  


Countries that have since recognised the significance of traditional medicine have witnessed great strides in their health care service systems. China and India readily come to mind. Closer to home, Ghana is an example. There, traditional medicine has been mainstreamed into the formal health system. A directorate under the health ministry has been designated, responsible for the planning and the development of traditional and alternative medicines policy. In the Gambia, similar moves have started and the recognition of traditional medicine is gaining momentum. The most recent is the launch of the National Traditional Medicine Day – January 17. This day was approved by the National Assembly last year as a national public holiday. What remains to be seen is its full integration into the country’s formal health system. Traditional herbal treatment is important in the national health care delivery system. For most people, especially those in the marginalised areas of the country, accessing health care could be a challenge in terms of distance and cost. Where orthodox doctors fail, as they often do, traditional healers are called into action.    


Embracing traditional medicine will open new windows of opportunities, in terms of research, enhanced health service delivery, entrepreneurship, and environmental conservation. For instance, instead of trekking miles and miles of forests in search of the medicinal plants, there’s a possibility for the sprouting of botanical gardens. This could be done at the community or individual level, thereby reducing unemployment while protecting the forest cover. In Cameroon, for instance, some youth are engaged in the planting of herbal plants for sale to pharmaceuticals companies. Traditional medicine remains in the informal economy. The challenge is how to shape policies and programme to exploit the informality to ensure its advancement through innovation with the appropriate intellectual property regime. 


It has to however be noted that the promotion or integration of traditional medicine should run side by side with a host of other regulatory and standards issues. There remains little attempt to understand the contexts in which the knowledge and practice of traditional medicines are currently reproduced, let along the social, economic, and cultural factors that determine consumer choices. This should inspire in-depth research in order to guide policy. As we’ve witnessed time and again, the failure to regulate the industry has allowed the flood of con-men and charlatans with the resultant undesired outcomes, ranging from loss of wealth and property to loss of lives of individuals in desperate need of a quick fix to their problems. Thus, there is need for stringent regulation with proper mechanisms that would guarantee standards. Transparency, of course, should be the hallmark of this processes without compromising respect for the rights of patients, such as their right to privacy. 


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