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[NAIROBI] Kenya is developing a national policy to promote traditional medicine that is intended to regulate a practice on which 80 per cent of its inhabitants depend for medical treatment.

A bill drawn up by the department of standards and regulatory services at the Ministry of Health Policy is due to be tabled soon in the National Assembly by the attorney general.

"Our goal is to help incorporate traditional knowledge into modern healthcare while still ensuring access to quality healthcare for all Kenyans," says Tom Mboya Okeyo, head of the department.

The government’s proposals have already been widely discussed with traditional medicine practitioners, herbalists, doctors and other health providers throughout the country, in a consultation process that started in 2001.

The development of the policy is in line with a commitment by the African Union to recognise the period 2001-2010 as a decade of traditional medicine. Kenya is seeking to catch up with Uganda and Tanzania, both of whose policies on traditional medicine are significantly more developed.

The proposed policy emphasises the need for guidelines on the way that traditional medicine is practiced, as well as for practitioners to receive training in ways of preserving such knowledge, and to take part in research and development projects aimed at improving its effectiveness.

Under the policy, the government would launch an initiative bringing together different players in the industry to lead a campaign to boost recognition of the value of complementary and alternative medicine within Kenya’s national health service.

The country’s medical profession has given a cautious welcome to the draft law, expressing support for the recognition of traditional medicine, but warning that it continues to have reservations about the ethical basis on which some of the medicine is administered.

"Our stand on the use of tradition medicine has not changed," says James Nykal, the immediate past chair of the Kenyan Medical Association. He says that many traditional practitioners have been treating patients in a way that professional physicians consider unethical. "The bill is a move in the right direction, as it means that such practices will now be monitored."

Kenyan lawyer Nelson Mutai says that the purpose of the bill is "to define traditional medicines and their role in health, as well as their impacts on social and economic lives both of the traditional healers as well as their patients."

The Ministry of Health has already promised to set up a register of medical practitioners. However such a move is likely to face major obstacles, as all applicants for registration must be able to produce a certificate of professional qualification and a valid work permit.

Furthermore, although the bill outlining the new policy is due to be sent to the National Assembly in the near future, its adoption is likely to be a slow process, as there are already many other bills – including the enactment of a new constitution – in the legislative pipeline.