The World Health Organisation (WHO) released new guidelines on the proper use of traditional, complementary and alternative medicines yesterday. Addressed to national health authorities, the guidelines aim to help countries inform their citizens about the best use of alternative therapies.
According to the WHO, up to 80 per cent of developing countries' populations use traditional medicines as their primary source of healthcare. But the agency warned that their growing use, both in developed and developing nations, has been mirrored by an increasing number of reports of adverse affects.
In 2002, for example, there were nearly 10,000 reported cases of adverse drug reactions in China, compared with 4,000 between 1990 and 1999.
"It is not true that good, traditional medicines are good for everybody, every time, or in big quantities," said Vladimir Lephakin, WHO assistant director-general for health technologies and pharmaceuticals. "This is a big mistake."
"There are a lot of examples of people who not only suffer but die because of drug interaction or improper use of traditional medicine," he added.
"WHO supports traditional alternative medicines when these have demonstrated benefits for the patient and minimal risks," says Lee Jong-Wook, WHO's director-general. "But as more people use these medicines, governments should have the tools to ensure all stakeholders have the best information about their benefits and their risks."
Insufficient patient awareness can result in harmful misuse of traditional medicines. This is compounded by the fact that many traditional remedies are sold over the counter. Most traditional products can be purchased without a prescription in 99 of the 142 countries surveyed by the WHO.
According to the guidelines, poorly aware consumers risk using counterfeit products or choosing the wrong product to treat their condition. And there have also been cases of unintentional overdoses.
Unqualified practitioners can also cause harm to patients. The National Research Institute on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Norway has reported several cases of collapsed lungs, caused by unqualified acupuncturists.
Finally, the WHO warns that patients put themselves at risk by failing to tell their doctors about their personal use of traditional medicines.
In addition to recommending measures to raise consumer awareness, the guidelines suggest that governments establish standards of practice, treatment and training for complementary medicine. They also encourage collaborations between conventional and traditional care providers to improve results and help reform the health sector in developing nations.