Fact Sheet N 134
The term "traditional medicine" refers to ways of protecting and restoring
health that existed before the arrival of modern medicine. As the term implies, these
approaches to health belong to the traditions of each country, and have been handed down
from generation to generation. Traditional systems in general have had to meet the needs
of the local communities for many centuries. China and India, for example, have developed
very sophisticated systems such as acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine. In practice, the
term "traditional medicine" refers to the following components: acupuncture,
traditional birth attendants, mental healers and herbal medicine.
Over the years, the World Health Assembly has adopted a number of resolutions drawing
attention to the fact that most of the populations in various developing countries around
the world depends on traditional medicine for primary health care, that the work force
represented by practitioners of traditional medicine is a potentially important resource
for the delivery of health care and that medicinal plants are of great importance to the
health of individuals and communities.
Through its Traditional Medicine Programme, the World Health Organization (WHO) supports
Member States in their efforts to formulate national policies on traditional medicine, to
study the potential usefulness of traditional medicine including evaluation of practices
and examination of the safety and efficacy of remedies, to upgrade the knowledge of
traditional and modern health practitioners, as well as to educate and inform the general
public about proven traditional health practices.
WHO is working closely with 19 Collaborating Centres in ten countries (Belgium, China,
Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Romania, Sudan,
United States of America and Vietnam).
A genuine interest in various traditional practices now exists among practitioners of
modern medicine and growing numbers of practitioners of traditional, indigenous or
alternative systems are beginning to accept and use some of the modern technology. This
will help foster teamwork among all categories of health workers within the framework of
primary health care. The reasons for the inclusion of traditional healers in primary
health care are manifold: the healers know the sociocultural background of the people;
they are highly respected and experienced in their work; economic considerations; the
distances to be covered in some countries; the strength of traditional beliefs; the
shortage of health professionals, particularly in rural areas, to name just a few.
A large proportion of the population in a number of developing countries still relies on
traditional practitioners, including traditional birth attendants, herbalists and
bone-setters and on local medicinal plants to satisfy their primary health care needs. WHO
estimates that traditional birth attendants assist in up to 95% of all rural births and
70% of urban births in developing countries.
Traditional medicine has maintained its popularity in a number of Asian countries, such
as China, India, Japan and Pakistan. In China, for example, traditional medicines (herbal
preparations) account for 30% to 50% of the total medicinal consumption. In 1993, the
total sales of herbal medicines amounted to more than US$ 2.5 billion. In Japan, from 1974
to 1989, there was a 15-fold increase in Kampoh ("Chinese method") medicinal
preparations in comparison with only 2.6-fold increase in the sales of mainstream
pharmaceutical products. The Japanese per capita consumption of herbal medicine appears to
be the highest in the world.
During the last decade, there has also been a growing interest in traditional and
alternative systems of medicine in many developed countries. One-third of American adults
have used alternative treatment and 60% of the public in the Netherlands and Belgium, and
74% in the United Kingdom are in favour of complementary medicine being available within
the framework of the National Health Service. A survey among Member States of the European
Union in 1991, identified about 1400 herbal drugs used in the European Economic Community.
Medicinal plants are the oldest known health-care products. Their importance is still
growing although it varies depending on the ethnological, medical and historical
background of each country. Medicinal plants are also important for pharmacological
research and drug development, not only when plant constituents are used directly as
therapeutic agents, but also when they are used as basic materials for the synthesis of
drugs or as models for pharmacologically active compounds.
Legislative controls in respect of medicinal plants have not evolved around a structured
control model. There are different ways in which countries define medicinal plants or
herbs. As a result, different approaches have been adopted with regard to licensing,
dispensing, manufacturing and trading in order to ensure the safety, quality, and efficacy
of medicinal plant preparations.
Herbal medicines are assuming greater importance in the primary health care of
individuals and communities in many developing countries and there has been an increase in
international trade in herbal medicines. However, in most countries the herbal medicines
market is not adequately regulated, and the products are therefore unregistered and often
not controlled by regulatory bodies. The establishment of regulation and registration
procedures has become a major concern in both developed and developing countries.
WHO has compiled a list of medicinal plants which are widely used in primary health
care. In July 1996, a WHO scientific group involving 100 experts from various countries
around the world adopted the list which includes 28 monographs of 28 medicinal plants
originally prepared by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Traditional Medicine in Chicago,
Illinois, United States of America.
For further information please contact Valery Abramov, Health Communications and Public
Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 2543 or Fax No. (41 22) 791 4858. E-mail
All WHO press releases, Fact Sheets and Features can be obtained on Internet on the WHO
home page http: //www.who.ch/
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