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The African Union and World Health Organization have been urged to draft a model law that African countries could use to protect traditional knowledge of medicinal plants.

The call was made at a four-day workshop that the organisations held in Brazzaville, Congo, last week (28-31 March).

About 80 per cent of people in Africa rely on traditional healers, and researchers are increasingly seeking to tap their knowledge for potential sources of new drugs.

However, few African countries have a legal framework for controlling access to indigenous knowledge and biological resources, or ensuring benefits arising from their use are shared fairly.

Lawyers, scientists, traditional healers and policy experts at the Brazzaville meeting drafted guidelines intended to help fill the policy gap.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the document discusses ways that national institutions and international agencies can improve their systems for protecting intellectual property rights relating to traditional medicine.

Delegates also urged states to promote and document traditional medicine, and said a global consensus must be reached on how to protect it.

To this end, they said, the WHO and African Union should mediate between African states and agencies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, which promotes international protection of intellectual property rights.

The WHO's regional director for Africa, Luis Sambo, warned that policies should consider both those holding traditional knowledge and the communities that could benefit from it.

The document, entitled 'Policy and legislative guidelines for the protection and promotion of traditional and indigenous medical knowledge in Africa', will be released after the WHO has reviewed it.