The World Health Organization says traditional medicines are an effective treatment for modern illnesses and should be integrated into primary health care. The head of the WHO says China, where herbal remedies are prescribed alongside western medicine, is a good model to follow. But as Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing, there are still concerns about the effectiveness and safety of traditional medicines.
Chinese traditional medicine has been practiced for over two thousand years. It is used to treat everything from the common cold to cancer.
Its holistic approach of herbal remedies, diet, and exercise is gaining popularity in the West.
Now the head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, says the ancient remedies should be used together with western medicine to treat modern disease.
"The two systems of traditional and western medicine need not clash," Chan said. "Within the context of primary health care they can blend together in beneficial harmony, using the best features of each system and compensating for certain weakness in each."
Chan spoke in Beijing at the WHO's first-ever conference promoting traditional medicine.
The WHO says traditional medicines have fewer side effects than western drugs and can be a cheap, effective treatment for common illnesses such as diarrhea and malaria.
Chan says traditional medicine can also help prevent so-called modern lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and mental disorders.
She says China, where doctors prescribe both medicines, sets a good example. But she warns that not all traditional medicines meet scientific and safety standards.
"Many traditional medicines have an inadequate evidence base when measured by these standards," Chan stated. "Tests for quality and standards for production tend to be less vigorous and controlled. Products may escape the strict regulations set up to ensure safety. Practitioners may not be certified or licensed."
Herbal medicines have long been a focus of research to incorporate their active ingredients into western drugs.
But the herbal medicine market is now worth billions and too many are being sold without a clear understanding of their ingredients or how they work.
Pediatrician Robbie Parkman, who was in Beijing for the summer Olympics, says that has doctors like him concerned.
"I think the holistic part is fine. I think the active ingredient part could be made better," Parkman said. "Because I'm just worried that even if something is working, that you're not going to consistently treat people."
The WHO says integrating traditional medicines into modern health care would encourage scientific research and oversight and ensure they are used safely and effectively.
Wang Qi is a professor at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. He says the biggest challenge to promoting traditional Chinese medicine abroad is scientifically proving it works.
"Science can gradually resolve this issue," Wang said. "For us ordinary people, the most important thing is effectiveness. As long as there is a benefit, it is good."