How safe is traditional medicine?

Ask an expert
11 July 2005

Q: How safe is traditional medicine?

A: Traditional medicine includes many different practices and remedies, and varies from one country to another. While some practices seem to offer benefits, others remain questionable.

In 2002, WHO launched a strategy on traditional medicine to help countries explore its potential for people’s health and well-being, while minimizing the risks of unproven or misused remedies. The main aim of the strategy is to encourage further research.

There is some evidence that seems to support the use of traditional and complementary medicine – for example, acupuncture in relieving pain, yoga to reduce asthma attacks, and tai ji techniques to help elderly people reduce their fear of falls. WHO does not currently recommend these practices, but is working with countries to promote an evidence-based approach to addressing safety, efficacy and quality issues.

Unfortunately, the misuse of certain herbal remedies can cause harm – even death – in some cases. The herb Ma Huang (ephedra) is traditionally used in China to treat short-term respiratory congestion. In the United States of America, the herb was marketed as a dietary aid, whose long-term use led to at least a dozen deaths, heart attacks and strokes. In Belgium, at least 70 people required renal transplants or dialysis for interstitial fibrosis of the kidney after taking the wrong herb from the Aristolochiaceae family, again as a dietary aid.

In developing countries, where more than one-third of the population lack access to essential medicines, the provision of safe and effective traditional and alternative remedies could become a important way of increasing access to health care. One way to ensure this is to integrate traditional medicine into the formal health system, thus ensuring better safety and adequate follow-up for patients.

Traditional medicine is also becoming more popular in industrialized countries, where many products can be bought over the counter.

In addition to concerns over safety and quality issues, traditional medicine also raises questions of protecting biodiversity (through over harvesting of the raw material for herbal medicines and other products), and protecting the traditional knowledge of communities.

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