The summit by the WHO in India comes as proponents of traditional medicines push for their integration into professional medical practice. Photo: AFP

The first World Health Organization (WHO) summit on traditional medicine is underway in Gandhinagar, India to collect evidence and data to allow for the safe use of such treatments.

"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 at the summit.

The UN health agency reckons that traditional medicines are a first port of call for millions of people worldwide. The talks in India bringing together policymakers, academics and traditional medicine practitioners to mobilise political commitment and evidence-based action towards such treatments.

"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.


Many herbalists and alternative medicine practitioners hope for an integration of their services into conventional medical practice, but skeptics fault their approaches, dosage and outcomes due to absence of clinical trials and reviews.

Still traditional healing systems remain the most accessible, sometimes, the last resort for millions of people especially in Africa and Asia.

"We need to face a very important real-life fact that traditional medicines are very widely used," Nobel laureate and Chair of 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," he cautioned.

Regulatory oversight

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

Of the WHO's 194 member states, 170 acknowledged their use of traditional and complementary medicine since 2018, but only 124 reported having laws or regulations for the use of herbal medicines. Only half had a national policy on such methods and medicines.

The UN 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 illness.

But many traditional treatments have no proven scientific value. Conservationists also argue the industry drives a rampant trade in endangered animals including and threatens the existence of entire species. Some of the most targeted animals include tigers, rhinos and pangolins.

Homemade remedies

Use of homemade remedies soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, including a green herbal drink based on Artemisia largely promoted by Madagascar's president.

The plant has a proven efficacy in malaria treatment, but its use to combat Covid was widely scorned by many doctors, AFP news agency reports.

In China, traditional medicine has a distinguished history, but top European medical bodies have previously demanded it be subject to the same regulatory oversight as conventional medical methods.

"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.

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

The two-day WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit takes place alongside a meeting of G20 health ministers in the Indian city of Gandhinagar.

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.

TRT Afrika and agencies