WHO welcomes South Africa's commitment to Traditional Medicine

Johannesburg, 30 March 2004 -- The World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed the South African government's commitment to African Traditional Medicine in the health care delivery system.

Speaking on Tuesday at the African Traditional Medicine Conference in Johannesburg , WHO country representative, Dr Welile Shasha, said that official recognition and respect of traditional medicine was the right step towards integration into national health systems and services.

"Research has shown that up to 80 per cent of Africans depend on traditional medicine for their health care needs. Traditional medicine is our culture and heritage - it occupies pride of place in Africa because it is affordable and easily accessible. We need to raise the profile of traditional medical practitioners, and recognise the important role they play in the health care delivery system," said Dr Shasha.

In Sub-Saharan Africa there is one traditional medicine practitioner for every 500 head of population, compared to Western medicine practitioners where the ratio is one to 40 000.

"The process of integration of traditional medicine also involves partnerships between biomedical researchers and traditional health practitioners which is based on mutual trust, respect and equity. Collaboration with the private sector regarding licenses for producing new medicines, cultivation to promote sustainability, and registration of the new medicines is crucial for the integration process," said Dr Shasha.

He added that research was also a critical component of the Regional Strategy on Traditional medicine. The WHO Regional Office for Africa has developed generic and disease specific research protocols for the clinical evaluation of traditional herbal medicines. These apply particularly to priority diseases in the region such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, hypertension and diabetes.

"We must not lose sight of the need to protect our rich traditional medical knowledge and indigenous plants. We are aware that some of our valuable plants have been taken away through piracy activities without any reference or benefit to the countries or traditional practitioners. A peculiarity of Africa's indigenous medicinal plants are that they are found across national political boundaries, and the custodians of their medicinal properties are often families and communities. Intellectual protection systems should take these issues into account," he said.

The conference, attended by academics, traditional health practitioners, and scientific research organizations, aims to promote dialogue between these key role players. It is hosted by the National Department of Health with the support of the WHO, and ends on Wednesday.

Media Enquiries: 
Greer van Zyl, WHO Health Information & Promotion 
083 64 77 045 
Dr Welile Shahsa, WHO Country Representative 
083 677 7704