India Hosts Global Summit To Explore Evidence Base For Traditional Medicine


Preparation of herbal prescriptions at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Simao, Yunnan Province, China

PUNE, India – The first global summit to explore the role of traditional, complementary, and integrative medicine in addressing health challenges is being convened in India next week by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit will be co-hosted by the Indian government in Gandhinagar on 17 and 18 August.

“Advancing science in traditional medicine should be held to the same rigorous standards as in other fields of health,” said Dr John Reeder, WHO’s Research Director and Director of the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, at a press briefing about the summit on Thursday.

“This may require new thinking on the methodologies to address these more holistic, contextual approaches and provide evidence that is sufficiently conclusive and robust to lead to policy recommendations,” added Reeder.

He said that there was already a lot of evidence of the efficacy of some traditional medicine: “This is the heart of it; we need to treat traditional interventions with the same respect we give to other more Western medical interventions and that means examining them closely and critically and scientifically in the same way.”

Around 40% of pharmaceutical products are drawn from nature and traditional knowledge, including landmark drugs such as aspirin, artemisinin, and childhood cancer treatments. The scientists behind them used traditional knowledge to achieve their breakthrough discoveries, WHO said in a press statement.

Dr Shyama Kuruvilla, WHO lead for the Global Traditional Medicine Centre

Demand from member states

“Bringing traditional medicine into the mainstream of health care – appropriately, effectively, and above all, safely based on the latest scientific evidence – can help bridge access gaps for millions of people around the world.  It would be an important step toward people-centred and holistic approaches to health and well-being,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Dr Shyama Kuruvilla, WHO lead for the Global Traditional Medicine Centre, told the media briefing that the summit aimed to ” support member states to support populations who want to learn and use evidence-based safe, effective traditional medicine for their health and well-being”.

She added that the demand for the summit came from the member states, and 170 of WHO’s 194 member states have reported that their citizens use traditional treatments including herbal medicines, acupuncture, yoga and indigenous therapies.

In many places, traditional medicine represents a significant part of the health sector’s economy. For millions living in remote and rural areas, traditional medicine is often the only culturally acceptable, available and affordable care, and countries have taken steps to integrate the practices, products and practitioners into their national healthcare systems.

Complementary roles

Dr Kim Sungchol, head of the WHO’s Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine Unit said that the summit will help WHO understand the needs of the member states and guide policy.

“Many systems of traditional medicine have a more holistic approach (than modern medicine). That’s why they are much more advanced in health promotion and disease prevention, particularly lifestyle-related non-communicable disease,” Sungchol said.

Reeder added that the WHO wanted to develop methodologies to examine traditional medicine and practices to “produce robust evidence” about what works and what doesn’t.

WHO has been working on traditional medicine since 1976, responding to requests from countries for evidence and data to inform policies and practices and to set global standards and regulations to ensure safety and quality.

Results from the WHO’s third global survey on traditional medicine will be released during the summit.

Heads of State and governments at the 2019 UN high-level meeting on universal health coverage acknowledged the need to include evidence-based traditional and complementary medicine services, particularly in primary health care.

Participants at next week’s summit will include WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and regional directors, health ministers of the G20 countries; scientists, practitioners of traditional medicine, health workers and members of civil society organisations.

Image Credits: Simon Lim/ WHO-TDR.

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