Traditional and integrative medicine is important in preventing and treating non-communicable diseases and mental health, and for healthy ageing, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

He was addressing the first WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit in Gujarat, on Thursday. Outlining how traditional medicine had a long history, he urged WHO member states to commit to integrating traditional medicine into national systems, identify specific evidence-based and actionable recommendations and unlock the the power of traditional medicine through science and innovation.

Anti-inflammation, Aspirin & Artemisinin

Pointing to over 3,500 years ago, Dr. Tedros said, Sumerians and Egyptians used bark from the willow tree as a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. The ancient Greeks used it to ease the pain of childbirth and cure fevers. Then in 1897, chemist Felix Hoffmann synthesized aspirin and the drug has gone on to improve, and save, the lives of millions of people every day, he said.

“The Madagascar periwinkle, which is now the source of childhood cancer drugs, is mentioned in Mesopotamian folklore, as well as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine,” he pointed out. Medicinal plants like hawthorn and foxglove have been used to treat cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and a derivative of the wild Mexican yam is one of the first active ingredients in contraceptive pills, he said.

Last year, the Global Traditional Medicine Centre in Jamnagar (Gujarat) was launched. The Summit would be a regular event, he said, possibly every two years, to provide an established global forum for sharing evidence and best practices in the use of traditional medicine.

“India has a rich history of traditional medicine through Ayuverda, including yoga, which has been shown to be effective in alleviating pain,” he said.

And having spent many years researching malaria transmission, he said, “I am inspired by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, who leveraged traditional knowledge to achieve a breakthrough in malaria treatment. After testing – unsuccessfully — over 240,000 compounds for use in antimalarials - Tu Youyou turned to traditional Chinese medical literature for clues. There, she and her team found a reference to sweet wormwood to treat fevers.”

In 1971, Tu Youyou’s team isolated artemisinin, an active compound in sweet wormwood that was particularly effective in treating malaria. Artemisinin is now the backbone of malaria treatment, he pointed out.

Ten-year strategy

The WHO was working to build evidence and data to inform policies, standards and regulations for the safe, cost-effective, and equitable use of traditional medicine, through the global centre, he said..

In fact, WHO member states had, in 2014 approved the first global 10-year strategy for traditional medicine. And at this year’s World Health Assembly, member states agreed to extend the strategy for an additional two years, and asked for a new 10-year strategy be developed for 2025 to 2034.

Dr. Tedros urged countries to commit to examining how best to integrate traditional and complementary medicine into their national health systems. He also called on them to identify specific, evidence-based and actionable recommendations that can inform the next WHO traditional medicine global strategy. And, this meeting should be a starting point for a global movement to unlock the power of traditional medicine through science and innovation.