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La Directora de Medicina Tradicional de Bolivia, Vivian Camacho, en la Primera Cumbre Mundial de la Organización Mundial de la Salud (ONU – OMS) sobre Medicina Tradicional. Foto: VC

The UN values traditional medicine

29 August, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

On August 17 and 18, 2023, the First World Health Organization (UN–WHO) World Summit on Traditional Medicine took place in Gandhinagar (India).

The objective of the meeting was to achieve political commitments to promote the application of traditional medicine, which is the first therapeutic option for millions of people around the world, as evidenced, for example, in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Since March 2022, WHO, with the support of the Government of India, has established the WHO World Centre for Traditional Medicine as a knowledge platform in charge of channeling ancient wisdom and moderna science for the health and well-being of people and the planet.

In his opening speech, the Director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that traditional medicine is as old as humanity itself and that in his childhood in Ethiopia, he saw how communities depended on traditional medicine practitioners to meet their health needs.

He explained that more than 3500 years ago, the Sumerians and Egyptians used willow bark as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, just as the ancient Greeks used it to relieve the pain of childbirth and cure fever.

Then, in 1897, the chemist Felix Hoffmann synthesized aspirin, a medicine that has continued to improve, and save, the lives of millions of people every day.

The Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), which is now a source of medicines against childhood cancer, is mentioned in Mesopotamian folklore, as well as in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.

Medicinal plants such as hawthorn and foxglove have been used to treat cardiovascular diseases and hypertension, and a derivative of the Mexican wild yam is one of the first active ingredients in birth control pills.

India has a rich history in traditional medicine through Ayurvedic medicine, including yoga, which has proven to be effective in relieving pain.

After unsuccessfully testing more than 240,000 chemical compounds for use in antimalarial drugs, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou consulted traditional Chinese medicine documentation for clues.

In 1971, Tu Youyou’s team isolated artemisinin, an active compound of this plant that turned out to be particularly effective in the treatment of malaria. Artemisinin is now the backbone of the treatment against this disease.

About 40% of the medicines used today are based on natural products, and certain reference drugs, such as acetylsalicylic acid, artemisinin and some childhood cancer treatments, come from traditional medicine.

Traditional, complementary and integrative medicine is especially important for preventing and treating non-communicable diseases and for taking care of mental health and aging in a healthy way.

During the Forum, Vivian Camacho, General Director of Traditional Medicine of Bolivia, exhibiting the Wiphala, said that “…the Indigenous Peoples have survived genocide and extermination, the invasion of our territories, thanks to our ancestors and wise men who fought bravely to preserve our ancestral knowledge which still endure over time”

During the sessions of the Summit, Ghebreyesus presented three challenges to the international community: that all countries commit to identify the best way to integrate traditional and complementary medicine into their national health systems; that they present concrete recommendations to elaborate the next global strategy of traditional medicine; and that they consider the forum as a starting point to promote a global movement that unleashes the potential of traditional medicine through science and innovation.