World Health Org Promotes Alt Med

WHO to Promote Alternative Medicine

05/16/2002 3:35 PM EDT


In response to a rapid increase in the use of alternative medicine over the last decade, the World Health Organization has created the first global strategy for traditional medicine.

The U.N. health agency aims to bring traditional, or alternative, therapies out of the shadows by intensifying research into their effectiveness and safety, by promoting their proper use and regulation and by helping countries integrate them into their health care services.

The strategy, launched Thursday at the annual meeting of the WHO's governing body, is also designed to ensure traditional remedies aren't hijacked and patented by big business and that medicinal plants are not wiped out by overharvesting.

Traditional medicine - called complementary or alternative medicine in countries where conventional Western, or modern, medicine dominates - includes remedies, such as ginger root or shark cartilage, and diverse practices, such as acupuncture, yoga, shiatsu massage and aromatherapy.

Traditional medicine has been used for millennia in parts of the developing world and remains widespread there. In Africa, 80 percent of the population use traditional therapies, WHO said.

In Europe and North America, where more than half of people have been treated with alternative medicine at some time during their lives, use has doubled in the last decade, the agency added.Like conventional drugs, alternative treatments must be used correctly, and as with conventional medications, tragedies have occurred.

However, unlike with Western medicine, consumers are mostly deciding for themselves what they use."There seems to be a growing gap between what you might call the 'uncritical enthusiasts' and the 'uninformed skeptics,'" said Dr. Jonathan Quick, director of WHO's essential drugs and medicines policy unit. "The enthusiasts rave that all of these methods work and don't want to recognize that herbal remedies that are used the wrong way can kill."

"On the other hand you've got the uninformed skeptics who don't believe that there's any evidence for any of these and would prefer that they not be around," Quick said.The reality is somewhere in the middle, he said.

There is now an urgent need to establish through rigorous scientific testing what works and what doesn't, said Forkel Falkenberg, a professor of international health at Sweden's Karolinska Institute in Stockholm."This is a very important step for modern science, to engage in understanding the complexity of complementary medicine," Falkenberg said.

"One cannot any more marginalize this area. One needs to bring it into the light - to understand what to do with it, how to take away the unsafe practices."He said the WHO's decision to create a strategy for alternative medicine is a clear signal that the field is now being taken seriously.

Studies have shown success in treating conditions ranging from malaria and HIV to high blood pressure and lower back pain.

The WHO intends to help countries trying to evaluate therapies by providing guidance on how to conduct the studies.It will also provide countries with expert advice on setting up consumer education programs to help people select the right therapies for the right conditions and remind people that just because something is natural, it doesn't mean it's safe.

The health agency will soon publish reports on more than 100 medicinal plants, outlining what they are supposed to be used for, how certain it is that they work and what questions remain.It also plans to advise nations on how to ensure the quality of traditional medicine products and practices.

That involves regulation of drugs and proper training and licensing of healers, WHO said.More than 70 countries already regulate herbal medicines, said Dr. Xiaroui Zhang, WHO's coordinator for traditional medicine."Only through regulation can we try to ensure the quality, safety and efficacy," of traditional remedies, she said.

In the Western world, Canada has gone farthest down that path. Seventy percent of people in that country have used alternative medicine and one third of the population uses it on a regular basis, said Dr. Jean Lariviere, a senior medical adviser in Canada's health department.

Regulations are expected to be sent to Parliament there by the end of the year, he said.---

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