Traditional medicine passes WHO health checks

BEIJING (Reuters) - Health representatives from more than 70 countries gathered in Beijing on Friday to swap ideas on how to make traditional medicine, ranging from acupuncture to leech treatment, more widely available.

The two-day World Health Organization (WHO) event, built around seminars on regulatory standards and folk medicine in cultures from South Africa to Japan, is expected to end with member countries agreeing to expand traditional medicine in their health care systems.

WHO officials at the event said blending traditional and Western medicine could make each more effective.

“Integration of traditional medicine into national health systems will not only bring benefits to patients, but will also ensure safety and proper use,” assistant WHO director-general Carissa Etienne told reporters at a briefing.

Speakers also called for research on traditional medicines, which WHO director-general Margaret Chan called “a valuable source of leads for therapeutic advances and the discovery of new classes of drugs.”

Herbal and other treatments have sometimes been found effective in studies. Artemisinin, a plant ingredient used in southern China for centuries to fight malaria, became regarded as the best treatment for the disease after research proved its ability to clear parasites quickly.

Traditional medicine is used throughout China and in other developing countries, even with access to Western-style health care growing.

Leech therapy is used in parts of India to treat pain and skin diseases, and hospitals in China often offer both Western treatment and traditional cures like acupuncture or herbal antidotes.

In Canada and Germany, according to the WHO, more than seven in ten people have tried folk treatments as alternatives or supplements to modern health care.

Revenue from traditional medicine in Europe reached more than 3 billion euros ($3.82 billion) from 2003 to 2004, according to Zhang Xiaorui, WHO coordinator on traditional medicine. The number for China was $8 billion, she said.

“There are many examples where fast and effective traditional medicines have existed,” said Hans Hogerzeil, the WHO’s director of medicines policy and standards.

“They have then afterwards become more or less Western medicines because the active ingredient has been identified and is now produced in a standardized way.”

($1=.7864 Euro)

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Paul Tait)

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