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The Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) took a more pragmatic approach to bridging the gap. In 2001, it launched a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). Since last year, the EPO has consulted this 24 million-page multilingual database of traditional remedies and medicinal plants before granting patents (See BioMed Analysis: Keep traditional knowledge open but safe).

Many other countries, such as China, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and some Middle Eastern nations, already have or plan to create similar databases to protect their local resources.

Regulate the remedies

Beyond the differences between indigenous and Western knowledge systems, efforts to integrate traditional and modern medicine also have to deal with significant regulatory differences.

All countries have some form of national drug authority, responsible for administering and managing modern medicines and formulating drug policy.

The problem with traditional medicine is that it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. A given medicinal plant may be classified as a food, dietary supplement, or herbal medicine, depending on location.

A 2005 survey of WHO member states revealed that between 84 and 90 countries (approximately 60 percent) did not have national policies, laws or regulations for traditional medicine, although more than half planned to develop them [5]. For the most part, these are the nations where the use of traditional remedies is most widespread (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Regulation of traditional medicine in the world [5]

And those countries that have TM legislation take different approaches to authorizing, preparing, producing and marketing traditional remedies.

The lack of regulation means that there are as many false remedies or professionals as there are genuine treatments, which can have fatal consequences. Last year, for example, two people died and nine were hospitalized in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region after taking counterfeit traditional diabetes medicine used to lower blood sugar. [6]

For much of the last decade, the WHO has worked to develop international technical guidelines and standards to help countries formulate policies and regulations to control traditional medicines.

Rehearsal time

If the regulation of traditional and Western medicines differs, so do the methods for evaluating and testing them.

Modern drugs undergo a series of rigorous laboratory tests and clinical trials before being launched on the market. Modern medicine has developed robust methods to demonstrate efficacy, prove safety, and standardize good manufacturing practices.

Rehearsal timeIn contrast, little scientific testing is done to evaluate the products and practices of traditional medicine. Quality tests and production standards tend to be less rigorous or controlled and, in many cases, professionals do not have accreditations or authorizations.

  • Of course, some researchers think that it is inappropriate to subject a drug that has been tested in thousands of people for decades or centuries to the same restrictions as a new chemical compound.
  • However, many think that before incorporating a traditional medicine into the framework of conventional pharmaceutical products, a new evaluation is necessary.