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UN Agency to Ensure Safety and Access to Traditional Medicines

The World Health Organization, WHO, has developed its first global strategy to ensure that traditional medicines and treatments are available and safe. WHO has said that up to 80 percent of people in the developing world use traditional treatments, such as herbal medicines and acupuncture.

It says growing numbers of people in the industrialized world, more than half the population, also are turning to traditional medicines to prevent or treat disease. WHO said that about 75 percent of people living with HIV/AIDs in San Francisco, London, and South Africa have used what is known as alternative medicine as part of their care.

WHO's Xiaorui Zhang, of the agency's Essential Drugs and Medicines Department, said the time has come to set guidelines for the proper use of alternative medical treatment.

"Many therapies and herbs are used in self-care. We are now going to develop the guidelines to educate the consumers - educate them. You have to understand how to use them, how to select them, and what are the indications and counter-indications," she said.

Dr. Zhang said WHO also will provide guidelines to countries about how to regulate production and licensing of herbal medicines to ensure quality control. For example, WHO has said, improper use of the traditional Chinese herb, ephedra, in the United States led to at least a dozen deaths, heart attacks, and strokes because it was marketed incorrectly.

The WHO regional director for Africa, Ebrahim Samba, said the use of traditional medicine is widespread in Africa. He said that, sometimes, it is the only service available, particularly in the villages.

"Like it or not, it is there. It's been there long before Western medicine came into Africa, and it will be there long after. It is presently going on. It is effective against some illnesses," Mr. Samba said.

Dr. Samba said traditional medicines also are being used to treat malaria, sickle-cell anemia, and hypertension.