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UNESCO Meet Boosts Traditional Medicine

PARIS, Sep 12 2012 (IPS) - Jean-Pierre Georges Foucault is a former scientist who is used to dealing with fact and evidence. But when a friend became ill and had excruciating pain, he accompanied her to a traditional healer who, with the placing of his hands, managed to effect a reduction in the pain.

“As a scientific person, I don’t necessarily believe in such things, but there are some amazing healing skills that you can’t explain,” he told IPS.

Foucault is currently the honorary chairperson of the National Committee of Public Health and Bioethics of the Grand Orient de France, the largest Masonic organisation in France. This week he has been an observer as experts discuss “traditional medicine and its ethical implications” at the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The meeting of the organisation’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) that began Monday has brought together a diverse range of participants from both developed and developing countries who wish to tackle the issue of how to regulate as well as learn from traditional medicine.

“Thanks to young doctors, recognition of traditional medicine is progressing a lot in France, because young practitioners think it can be complementary to conventional medicine,” Foucault told IPS.

France is considered by the United Nations to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. For developing countries that have weak systems, traditional medicine can be both a blessing and a curse, however.

“In rural areas in Africa, most patients depend on traditional medicine, but a lot of these practitioners are not known for their charity,” said Dr. Alfred J. Sumani, acting executive secretary for the National Science and Technology Council in Zambia.

He told IPS that traditional healers sometimes use their patient’s illness to advertise their services, so “patient information is not confidential” – in contrast to the widely accepted notion that heathcare providers should protect their clients’ privacy. Practitioners may also use secretive methods to heighten their aura or power, he said.

States such as Zambia could improve the efficacy of traditional medicine by establishing formal institutions where courses in the subject are taught, Sumani said. Governments could also seek to “demystify” the medicine so that patients have a better idea of what they are being prescribed, he added.

“Patients shouldn’t have to think that you can only take a potion at high noon or turn your back to the moon for the medicine to be effective,” he told IPS.

But as UNESCO experts have pointed out, traditional medicine has existed for centuries and stood the test of time. “The challenge is now to establish bridges between traditional medicine and conventional medicine,” said Pilar Alvarez-Laso, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences and secretary-general of the IBC.

A country on the other side of the globe that has university courses in traditional medicine as well as clear regulation of the sector is Singapore, where the public largely accepts practices such as acupuncture, according to Dr. Sylvia Lim, head of the secretariat of the bioethics advisory committee there.

“Among the Chinese, there is acceptance of traditional medicine, especially among the older generation,” she told IPS. “The younger generation may have a few reservations though.”

Some might shiver at the thought of being pierced with needles, but acupuncture is offered at some hospitals in Singapore, and students can take a course in traditional Chinese medicine at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Shops selling traditional herbs and other remedies operate under official regulation for the most part.

While the Singapore model is attractive, many countries in Africa need to find their own solutions, said Dr. Monique Wasunna, assistant director (research) of the Nairobi-based Kenya Medical Research Institute.

For her, an important issue is the care of patients who suffer from some of the 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that the World Health Organisation has identified. These diseases include dengue, soil-transmitted helminths such as roundworms and hookworms, and elephantiasis.

“Neglected patients have no purchasing power. Neglected diseases lie outside the market,” said Wasunna in an address to the UNESCO meeting, which also focused on “non-discrimination and non-stigmatisation” in the treatment of the sick.

U.N. studies show that more than a third of the world’s population have no access to essential drugs and that half of these people live in the poorest areas of Africa. “They live in extreme poverty and they are voiceless,” Wasunna said.

For such patients, traditional healers are often the first line of care, but these practitioners are limited in what they can provide as some diseases require extensive surgery. By the time the patients get to modern health facilities, it is often too late, Wasunna told IPS.

“If we could be like some countries where modern medicine co-exists at the same level with the traditional, that would be good,” Wasunna said. “But in every situation, there are some who take advantage of the poor.”

Both Kenya and Zambia are putting together guidelines for traditional medicine, while trying to learn from “indigenous knowledge systems”. Other steps that can be taken internationally are detailed in a draft report presented during the Paris meeting, which has shown that the issues of bioethics “cannot be limited to the debates on human cloning, eugenics or euthanasia,” according to UNESCO.

The draft report recommends building bridges between modern and traditional medicines, and defends the idea that “every patient, in any part of the world, should be informed of the many existing treatments and should have access to the most efficient treatments,” the organisation says.

The report also contains action plans, with the experts inviting governments “to concentrate on the right of each human being to have access to quality care” while also respecting cultural diversity and pluralism.

 
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  • Jay Taber

    For us here in the United States, traditional medicine is not available under public health policies, meaning if you are poor, then you get sick. Since U.S. health policy is about corporations making money, and not about making us healthy, public health will continue to decline.

  • Diane Appelbaum

    As this article points out, developing countries often rely
    on traditional healing both because it is part of a cultural heritage, and
    because of lack of resources. One country which is meeting the UNESCO’s
    challenge to establish bridges between traditional and allopathic medicine is
    Cuba. “Alternative” modalities, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine are
    integrated into the National Cuban health system – in clinical care, research
    and medical education. For further information on Cuba’s fascinating
    system, read my article with Dr. Ben Kliger et al, “Natural and Traditional
    Medicine in Cuba: Lessons for US Medical Education” as seen in the MEDICC Review (Winter 2008) and Academic Medicine (December 2006).

  • Diane Appelbaum

    As this article points out, developing countries often rely
    on traditional healing both because it is part of a cultural heritage, and
    because of lack of resources. One country which is meeting the UNESCO’s
    challenge to establish bridges between traditional and allopathic medicine is
    Cuba. “Alternative” modalities, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine are
    integrated into the National Cuban health system – in clinical care, research
    and medical education.

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