In researches some time ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 80 percent of the emerging world’s population today rely on traditional medicine (TM) for treatment. This was obvious during the past decades, as the developed world witnessed a rising trend in the use of traditional medicine.
It is therefore not a surprise that in many parts of rural Africa, traditional medicine practitioners are the most easily accessible and affordable health resource available to the local community and at times the only cure that exists. This makes the use of traditional medicine a fundamental component of the African healthcare system, the oldest and perhaps the most assorted of all health systems.
Some studies carried out in developed nations like Germany and Canada have shown that at least 70 percent of their population have tried complementary or alternative medicine (traditional medicine) at least once. While in Ethiopia, 90 percent of the population use herbal remedies for their primary healthcare.
Despite the extensive use of traditional medicine in Africa, there remains a significant lack of support and acceptance of its use in the formal healthcare system across the continent.
Given the critical role of traditional medicine in Africa’s health system, African governments need to reposition traditional medicine and give appropriate recognition and support to improve the image and standard of traditional medicine practice in Africa. There is a critical need to understand the current role it plays and its future possibilities within the wider healthcare systems.
Traditional medicine refers to the sum total of knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve, or treat physical and mental illnesses. Traditional medicine that has been adopted by other populations (outside its indigenous culture) is often termed complementary or alternative medicine (CAM).
The steady rise in the prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases is significantly contributing to Africa’s disease burden and is adding burden to healthcare systems already strained due to the high incidence of infectious diseases. Given the widespread use of CAM for chronic health conditions reported outside of Africa, it is evident that traditional medicine will play an integral role in the health of people suffering from chronic diseases in Africa as well, and is critical to addressing Africa’s disease burden.
Besides improving the health and quality of life of the people and reducing the burden on conventional health systems, exploring the value chains of natural medicine knowledge can foster economic growth and overall development on the continent.
Challenges impeding the development of traditional medicine in Africa include inadequate policies and legal frameworks, near absence of documentation of practice outcomes and bio-resources, the issues of secrecy and fear of loss of intellectual property and benefit-sharing, and inadequate clinical research data to validate traditional medicine knowledge, products and technology necessary to transform these resources into innovative and commercialisable products with wide acceptance by clinicians and the public.
Despite these challenges, the demand for and use have continued to grow not only in Africa but indeed across the world. African governments therefore need to create an enabling environment that facilitates collaboration between research institutes, practitioners, private organisations and other stakeholders in the trado-medicinal sector to ramp up local capacities to develop traditional medicines.
In view of these, the following are strategies to strengthen the use of traditional medicines in Africa’s health system:
African governments should establish national policies and laws that define and standardise basic concepts of traditional medicine, define areas of practice, and support the recruitment, registration, intellectual property rights, and privileges of traditional medicine practitioners.
Adequate funding from national budgets and external sources is required to ensure the active involvement of traditional medicine practitioners in national health care delivery. Adequate financial support is a key factor in the effective implementation of policies, programmes and projects aimed at promoting the use of traditional medicine.
To ensure evidence-based use of traditional medicine, research should be intensified on knowledge, practices and behaviours, and on safety, efficacy, and quality to enhance the role of traditional medicine in health systems. Academic and research institutions should be funded to take an initiative in these efforts. Inter-country, regional, and international collaborations in medicinal plant research, cultivation and use should be fostered.
It is worth mentioning that in Nigeria, Bloom Public Health is partnering the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency to support its capacity-building efforts and aid in establishing quality management systems that meet international standards of operating, as well as aid research to ensure the availability of safe medicines of local sources for the citizens of Nigeria. Such strategic public-private partnerships can be emulated to strengthen the use of traditional medicine in Africa.
The reality of the widespread use of traditional medicine in Africa cannot be ignored. Regulatory and scientific support to ensure evidence-based use of TM is therefore essential to strengthen the trado-medicinal sector and explore the opportunity it provides towards achieving universal health coverage.