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[LILONGWE] The Southern African Development Community has resolved to develop regional safety standards and carry out research into traditional medicines and medicinal plants to cure communicable diseases.

Health ministers from the 14 member countries made the resolution at a meeting in Malawi's capital Lilongwe last week (30 March) and recommended sending experts to China for advice about how to create the standards.

Traditional medicine has moved up the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agenda following an upsurge in the accessibility and use of traditional medicine in the region.

"Whether we like it or not, people in our countries are accessing traditional medicine," said Stephen Sianga, director of Social and Human Development at the SADC secretariat.

"What is important is to ensure that these medicines are safe and meet the acceptable quality standards."

Mphu Ramatlapeng, chair of health ministers of the SADC, said that by joining forces and pursuing strategic partnerships at the regional level with key stakeholders, countries could address some of the key objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

A ministerial steering committee involving stakeholders from all the countries has been put in place to explore the issue and draw up the safety guidelines.

The guidelines will include policies to monitor the use of traditional medicines at country level. Malawi health minister Marjorie Ngaunje told delegates a policy has already been developed for Malawi.

"[The policy is] aimed at assisting traditional healers to set up a secretariat, so that they link up with health officials for ease of communication," she said.

Crispin Kaposhi, a pesticides consultant in Zambia who has conducted studies on the use of indigenous plants as pesticides and drugs, said governments should strive to preserve traditional knowledge before it disappears.

"We need to intensify research and support the work that our traditional healers are doing with medicinal plants," he told SciDev.Net.