Traditional medicine is a broad term that describes a range of approaches to health, from plant, animal and mineral based cures to exercise, meditation and more spiritual approaches to health.
It is an important topic for journalists for a number of reasons. Up to 80 percent of people in developing countries rely on traditional healers for their healthcare and many traditional remedies have been used as the basis for modern Western drugs.
Many more have never been assessed, however, and some traditional medicines are known to be harmful, as can fake forms of popular remedies.
There are also big issues about who owns and benefits from the knowledge and biodiversity that underlies traditional medicine.
And while traditional medicines offer much potential for improving health, the wild species that many are derived from face environmental threats such as pollution, deforestation and climate change.
At the same time, demand for traditional medicines that are based on rare plants or animals can threaten these species with extinction.
Traditional medicine systems can be very old and many have been transmitted purely orally until recently. The most famous examples are Ayurvedic medicine (from India) and traditional Chinese medicine.
Traditional remedies have been refined over generations, but they have generally not been submitted to empirical assessments that meet the standards of Western science, nor have they been formally recorded, and this has exposed them to both doubt and exploitation.
At the same time, some traditional medicines have attracted the attention of commercial drug companies, which spend millions of dollars to research and develop new medicines.
In addition to creating new drugs that are entirely synthetic, they seek remedies in nature, by screening thousands of plants and other species to see if they have any useful properties.
Traditional medicine offers a valuable shortcut to identifying effective chemicals, but when the traditional and modern collide there can be controversial outcomes.
The companies call their search for potential chemicals ‘bioprospecting’. But this kind of research has also been termed ‘biopiracy’, in cases where the researchers exploit biological diversity and/or associated traditional knowledge without seeking the permission of, or sharing the benefits with, the countries or communities of origin.
A famous example is the case of Hoodia, a plant which the San people of southern Africa have used traditionally as an appetite suppressant.
When the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research sold the rights to develop the plant’s active chemical into an anti-obesity drug to a pharmaceutical company, it seemed that the San people would gain nothing from the deal.
Years later, after a campaign aimed at making the deal more fair, it was agreed that the San people would get six percent of all royalties from sales of the drug if it came to market.
To protect against any unfair exploitation of traditional remedies, some countries are creating registries of traditional remedies.
Journalists should be aware of the legal status of traditional medicines in their country – some nations have strictly controlled them while many others allow traditional healers to operate freely in parallel with the formal health system.
Journalists should take care when reporting on the claimed health benefits of any medicines and can seek independent opinions, patient testimony and scientific advice to build their stories.
When reporting bioprospecting versus biopiracy claims it is important to get both sides of the story, as shown in this SciDev.Net story.
In 2010 the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will aim to create a legal regime for managing how the benefits from genetic – including medicinal plants – are accessed and how the benefits from their use are shared.
As most countries are party to the CBD, this could lead to changes to national laws that provide many opportunities for journalists to report on traditional medicine from different angles.
CASE STUDY – Plant-based treatments for HIV/AIDS
In a number of African countries in recent years, traditional healers have claimed that they can cure HIV/AIDS but have refused to allow scientists to test their remedies.
Even the President of Gambia Yahya Jammeh has claimed to have cured HIV/AIDS with a remedy made from bananas and herbs. The World Health Organization (WHO) swiftly issued a statement that disputed Jammeh’s claims.
In countries where many people have HIV/AIDS any news of a cure can raise hopes but, as the WHO warns, can also turn people away from using the drugs that are known to be effective at treating the disease.
But this does not mean that traditional medicines have no potential to help people living with HIV/AIDS. Clinical trials are testing one traditional medicine’s effectiveness in delaying the onset of AIDS in HIV-positive patients.
The medicine is a African plant called Sutherlandia frutescens, which has been traditionally used to treat a wide variety of diseases.
LINKS TO OTHER TOOLKIT PAGES
UN Convention on Biological Diversity
Herbalgram – The effects of climate change on medicinal and aromatic plants
SciDev.Net – Traditional medicine
World Health Organization – Traditional medicine factsheet
SciDev.Net – Bioprospecting: legitimate research or ‘biopiracy’?