Friday, March 09, 2007


So, what are the benefits of traditional medicines? Primarily, is the fact it uses a holistic approach, taking into account the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual, which are invaluable for healing/health and often overlooked by allopathic medicine.

Treatments were not the only focus of the summit - many of the presentations and discussions also considered issues around equity, the need for mutual respect between TM and allopathic practitioners, and intellectual property rights. Some presentations described methods used by empirical science to evaluate the application of TM in HIV treatments - including a paper by Dr L Pieters of the University of Antwerp in Belgium, describing the development of research studies to evaluate the effectiveness of herbal remedies, and the specific modes of action of particular herbs.

Another paper, by Dr Mary Richardson of the National Foundation for Alternative Medicine, Washington, highlighted the continuing need to regulate traditional medicines, to maximise safety and efficacy - especially around contamination. The urgency in developing research paradigms and appropriate independent verification would, she suggested, lead to more effective low cost medication.

These and similar papers did reveal an especially difficult facet in the evaluation of TM - consistency of the product. If one herb being used for a treatment is to be evaluated for example, when in the lifecycle of the plant is the medication to be extracted? From where?

These and similar questions pose serious challenges for traditional African medicine, but one common feature reiterated throughout the week here in Ghana is the relative affordability, low toxicity, and ease of manufacture of TM. Their effectiveness against the 'monster' of HIV/AIDS - as suggested by one of the first speakers - is also a feature that many at the summit felt significant.

It is the strong cultural relevance of TM, derived from knowledge within the local community that is perhaps their most potent characteristic. They are - literally - owned by the populace. Indeed, Dr Rokia Sanago of the University of Mali suggests that because TH live in the 'same reality' as their community, their impact is especially powerful: subtly suggesting perhaps that practitioners of allopathic medicine are less adept at engaging with their clients.

Clearly, TM has resonance with the local community. However, issues of regulation of practitioners remain important, a fact highlighted by Dr Dabra VI during his description of a local project in which TH were provided with additional information about HIV in a bid to ensure that their practice was safe. The results of the project - a marked increase in knowledge and understanding of HIV/AIDS - demonstrated that TH could also play a vital part in the community for HIV prevention, because they are often the most trusted practitioners.

A similar project, in Mali, also suggested that, in the right circumstances, TH were willing to engage with education programmes designed to ensure that TM was practiced safely - in a way that would not diminish its uniqueness or relevance, but also to ensure risk of HIV transmission was minimised (e.g. during circumcision rituals). Dr Rokia Sanago of the University of Mali described a study in which 249 TH took part.

Following culturally sensitive education, 97% altered their practice to minimise HIV transmission. Other examples - for example, ensuring the TH are aware of interactions between anti-retroviral (ARV) medication and TM, suggest it is possible to integrate traditional and 'modern' knowledge in meaningful and beneficial ways, as has been often demonstrated in the context of western naturopathic medicine.