SEATTLE — When the World Health Organization published its first Traditional Medicine Strategy in 2002, along with its 2014 revision, it signaled a growing recognition of the importance of traditional treatments in developing areas. The movement to integrate them into the provision of much-needed health care to the poor is not without controversy, but many extoll its benefits.
Not only has traditional medicine come to support many local economies, providing crucial income, but studies have shown that traditional treatments, practitioners and knowledge provide people in many areas where modern health care is geographically or financially inaccessible with the first line of preventive and primary self-care. In addition, traditional herbal remedies used in parts of Africa and Asia, when used in combination with modern science, have even proved effective in cases where modern medication has not.
Use of Traditional Medicine in Underdeveloped Communities
Controversy and myth about traditional medicine often assume that it’s what underdeveloped communities use as a rejection of modern methods. However, research in Laos and Nepal has shown that traditional medicine is often used by isolated groups as the first line of defense against illness.
Modern medicine, when available is preferred, but a mixture of the two is common, with traditional remedies used for prevention and minor health concerns.
Recent research has suggested that traditional medicine could serve an unexpected purpose beyond preventive care, treating neglected tropical diseases. Modern drugs and treatments like chemotherapy are often too expensive for poor patients, simply not available to them or come with toxic side effects while natural remedies do not. Certain strains of Malaria have been shown to respond to natural treatments native to sub-Saharan Africa and several plants grown there, though not yet widely studied, show promise against parasitic diseases like African Trypanosomiasis.
Geographic and financial obstacles to accessing modern health care have contributed to growing antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance among the poor. Modern medications are rendered ineffective by incomplete courses of treatment. Many common traditional plants possess secondary metabolites like tannins, polypeptides and quinones which are harmful to microbes otherwise resistant to medications, preventing bacteria, fungi and parasites from functioning inside the body. This suggests that natural substances used in traditional medicine could act as effective substitutes for modern drugs in cases of resistance.
Income and Job Creation
The market for herbal remedies continues to grow dramatically as demand for supplements and traditional treatments increases in the West. The global market for herbal medicines is estimated to be worth over $100 billion, and increased demand presents an opportunity to impoverished communities around the world. Many communities in underdeveloped countries now make significant income from the cultivation, processing and packaging of indigenous plants for both local use and export, an example of how traditional medicine is empowering poor communities economically.
Zhenping county, a historically poor rural region of China, has become a center for herbal medicine in the country. Support and research funds from China Pharmaceutical University have brought planting and processing facilities which draw on the region’s abundance of indigenous plants. Poor local families gain important income from the industry, which is estimated to make nearly $300 million per year.
In India, where 12 percent of the population depends primarily on traditional medicine, women from communities otherwise vulnerable to poverty have organized traditional knowledge of herbs into businesses. In the village of Chattisgarh, a women’s self-help group called Haribol makes 1.5 million Indian Rupees or $21,000 per year by processing local plants with the help of government-trained Ayurveda experts. Such groups capitalize on the history and local knowledge of Ayurveda and other forms of traditional medicine to provide their families with steady income.
Growing efforts to regulate and study traditional treatments where they are widely used aim to make these practices safe for wider use. The goal is to legitimize traditional methods and recognize how traditional medicine is empowering poor communities worldwide. Currently, 119 WHO member states have laws in place regulating the production and use of traditional medicine, doubling in number since 2000. However, states without regulations commonly cite a lack of research data on chemical composition and dosage as difficulties in creating legislation.
Universities in 39 countries now offer degrees in traditional medicine, with national institutions for research now operating in 73 countries. Interest from pharmaceutical companies in creating drugs based on the compounds found in natural remedies promises new discoveries and cures at prices more accessible to the poor.
– Marissa Field