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[CAPE TOWN] The South African health department has launched a virtual reference centre for traditional medicines, with the aim of boosting scientific research into the validity of their therapeutic claims.

The centre will be jointly managed by two of South Africa's leading research institutions – the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – but will also involve universities, other scientific research councils, and private laboratories.

It will host a database of traditional medicines, and act as a clearing-house for this information. For example, the database will make it possible to track research progress of individual medicinal preparations, says Gilbert Matsabisa, head of the MRC's Indigenous Knowledge Systems health unit.

He also says that the reference system will need to address how to share benefits derived from commercialising traditional remedies – an area currently lacking legislation in the country.  

South Africa's traditional medicines market is currently largely unregulated, prompting concern that consumers are vulnerable to ineffective and potentially dangerous treatments. Many fake 'traditional remedies' on sale contain highly toxic ingredients such as diluted bleach or industrial solvents. Others may cause lethal interactions with legitimate medicines.

It is illegal to market products with unconfirmed claims of therapeutic benefit, but officials at the country's Medicines Control Council concede that it is almost impossible to police the industry. Precious Matsoso, the council's registrar, says she hopes the reference centre will determine which traditional remedies are safe and effective, opening the way for registering such medicines.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 80 per cent of Africans use traditional medicines for primary healthcare. And in South Africa 70 per cent of the population consult traditional healers, according to the country's health department.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang has urged researchers to find traditional remedies that could benefit the population infected with HIV. An estimated 5 million South Africans have the virus, but the vast majority do not have access the necessary medicines. Many of these turn to traditional medicines for treatment.

The South African cabinet recently ordered the health department to develop a plan to provide antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals and clinics. But it is likely to be months, perhaps years, before all those who need these medicines have access to them.

Tamar Kahn is the science and health correspondent for Business Day.