Traditional medicine gains ground in African universities

Roughly 80 per cent of people in developing countries depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare Copyright: Flickr/TREEAID

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The number of African countries with national policies on traditional medicine increased almost fivefold between 2001 and 2010, according to a report on a decade of traditional medicine on the continent.

The report, launched at a meeting of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa two weeks ago (29 August–2 September), also found that the number of countries with strategic plans for traditional medicine increased from zero to 18 in the same period, and those with national regulatory frameworks rose from one to 28.

In 2010, 22 countries conducted research on traditional medicines for malaria, HIV/AIDS, sickle-cell anaemia, diabetes and hypertension using WHO guidelines.

According to the WHO, roughly 80 per cent of people in developing countries depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare.

Some African universities had incorporated traditional medicine into the curricula for medical and pharmacy students, the report found. Health ministers and the WHO African regional office agreed at the meeting to promote this integration as a way of increasing research in the field.

Karniyus Gamaniel, director-general of Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), said: "This is a very good development … The issue of curricula in medical and pharmacy schools is fundamental as this would provide the right orientation and sensitisation of younger people to begin to develop career lines in this direction."

The WHO regional director for Africa, Luis Gomes Sambo, who presented the report, stressed that having national policies on traditional medicine placed the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants in the arena of public health.

He called on African institutes to compile inventories of medicinal plants and to conduct research on the safety, efficacy and quality of medicinal plants.

Tamunoibuomi Okujagu, director-general of the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency, told SciDev.Net that the decision to introduce traditional medicine into medical schools would reduce the cynicism expressed towards the practice in Africa, counteract ‘quackery’ and ensure professionalism.

"A number of our health challenges require traditional medicines," he said. "Traditional medicine policies are good for Africa."

Joseph Okogun, a consultant phytochemist at the NIPRD, said the integration of traditional medicines into medical schools was overdue.

"Many people in technologically advanced countries use alternative medicine, which includes traditional medicines. The reason for the increased attention is that traditional medicines have weaker side effects compared with synthetic drugs," he said, adding that they are also cheaper and often work as combination therapies.