WHO Convenes First Summit on Traditional Medicine’s Role in Global Health

Former Chief of Procol and Ritual Performer (Omunyamirwa) of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, Mr Ashraf Nyorano Mugenyi. PHOTO/FILE

The World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing to hold the inaugural summit that delves into the significance of traditional, complementary, and integrative medicine in addressing urgent health challenges and advancing sustainable development. Scheduled for August 17-18, this groundbreaking event underscores the WHO’s commitment to exploring the potential of these medical practices.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, emphasized the pivotal role that traditional medicine can play in attaining universal health coverage and accomplishing global health objectives. He highlighted the need for a thoughtful integration of traditional medicine into mainstream healthcare, guided by contemporary scientific evidence. Such an integration, when executed prudently and safely, has the potential to bridge healthcare disparities and endorse holistic well-being on a global scale.

While not formally institutionalized, traditional and complementary medicine maintains strong roots in various regions worldwide, profoundly impacting the cultural fabric and health of many populations. For certain communities, this form of medicine constitutes their sole healthcare resource, often playing a significant economic role within the healthcare sector of certain nations.

Despite its historical usage, experts caution against conflating natural therapies with guaranteed safety, as well as against equating centuries of practice with proven efficacy. To ascertain the legitimacy of traditional medicines and include them in WHO guidelines, it is imperative to apply scientific methodologies and processes. WHO underscores the relevance of research methods such as ethnopharmacology, involving substances derived from natural sources like plants and fungi, and reverse pharmacology, to identify new, safe, and clinically effective treatments. Additionally, the integration of novel technologies—such as genomics, advanced diagnostics, and artificial intelligence—holds potential to enrich the understanding of traditional medicine.

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Dr John Reeder, WHO’s Director of the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases and Director of the Department of Research for Health, advocates for the application of rigorous scientific standards in advancing traditional medicine science. He notes that adopting these standards may necessitate novel methodologies to effectively address the holistic and contextual aspects of these approaches, producing conclusive and robust evidence to inform policy recommendations.

The summit is poised to delve into research and evaluation of traditional medicine, exploring methodologies that can shape a global research agenda and set priorities for the field. Drawing from a quarter-century of research in traditional medicine, the summit will also consider challenges and prospects.

During the event, WHO will unveil preliminary findings from the third global survey on traditional medicine. For the first time, this survey encompasses inquiries related to the financing of traditional and complementary medicine, indigenous health, quality assurance, knowledge, biodiversity, trade, integration, and patient safety. Dr John Reeder emphasizes the vital role of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge in traditional medicine and well-being, particularly for indigenous communities. He underscores that approximately 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity exists in indigenous territories, underscoring the importance of conserving biodiversity for the sustainable use of traditional medicine.

The comprehensive survey, set to be released later this year, will first be available on an alternative online platform and subsequently as a comprehensive report. The insights gathered will guide the formulation of WHO’s updated strategy for traditional medicine from 2025 to 2034.

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