WHO convenes first high level global summit on traditional medicine to accelerate health for all

Former Chief of Procol and Ritual Performer (Omunyamirwa) of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, Mr Ashraf Nyorano Mugenyi, encourages Banyoro to discover traditional medicines like their ancestors did. (Image: File)

In order to address pressing health challenges and driving progress in global health and sustainable development, the World Health Organization (WHO) is convening the world’s first summit on the exploration of the role of traditional, complementary and integrative medicine.

WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said ahead of the August 17 -18 meeting that traditional medicine can play an important and catalytic role in achieving the goal for universal health coverage and meeting global health-related targets.

“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.”

While it is not institutionalised, traditional and complementary medicine is well rooted in many parts of the world where it plays a vital role in the culture, health and wellbeing of many people.

In some communities, it is the only available source of health care as it plays a significant part of the health sector’s economy in some countries.

However, experts warn that natural therapy does not mean safe and centuries of use are not a guarantee of efficacy; thus, scientific methods and processes must be applied to provide evidence required for the recommendation of traditional medicines in WHO guidelines.

WHO suggests research methods such as ethnopharmacology which involves medicines derived from naturally occurring substances like plants and fungi and reverse pharmacology could help identify new, safe and clinically effective drugs while the application of new technologies in health and medicine for instance genomics, new diagnostic technologies and artificial intelligence could open new frontiers of knowledge on traditional medicine.

“Advancing science in traditional medicine should be held to the same rigorous standards as in other fields of health. 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,” Dr John Reeder, the WHO Director of the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases and Director of the Department of Research for Health  said.

The summit will explore research and evaluation of traditional medicine including methodologies that can be used to develop a global research agenda and priorities in traditional medicine as well as challenges and opportunities based on 25 years of research in traditional medicine.

At the summit, WHO will present emerging findings from third global survey on traditional medicine, which, for the first time includes questions on the financing of traditional and complementary medicine, the health of indigenous peoples, quality assurance, traditional and complementary medicine knowledge, biodiversity, trade, integration, patient safety and others.

“Biodiversity and indigenous knowledge are foundational pillars of traditional medicine and health and well-being, especially for indigenous peoples; 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in indigenous territories or lands, while conservation of biodiversity is a key issue related to the sustainable use of traditional medicines,” Dr John Reeder said. 

The complete survey which will be released later in the year, first on an alternative online dashboard and then as a report, will inform the development of WHO’s updated traditional medicine strategy 2025-2034.


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