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World Health Organization weighs in on CAM
Traditional medicine – called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the West and described in the report as a broad range of health practices, including traditional Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurveda and Arabic unani medicine, medicinal herbology, acupuncture and manual or spiritual therapies – is gaining popularity in the United States and other Western nations.
Meanwhile, many people in developing countries, including 80 percent of Africans, use traditional therapies, WHO officials said. In Africa, herbs are commonly used to treat fevers, including those associated with malaria, and various symptoms of AIDS/HIV.
Despite widespread use, research into traditional medicine has been inadequate, the organization said, which has slowed development of regulation and public policy. In response, WHO, which is the health organization of the United Nations, in May announced a strategy to intensify research into the safety and effectiveness of traditional medical practices to promote their proper use and to encourage regulation.
"Traditional or complementary medicine is (the) victim of both uncritical enthusiasts and uninformed skeptics," said Yasuhiro Suzuki, M.D., WHOs executive director for health technology and pharmaceuticals. "This strategy is intended to tap into its real potential for peoples health and well-being, while minimizing the risks of unproven or misused remedies."
The organizations Strategy for Traditional Medicine for 2002-2005 noted that incorrect use of some traditional therapies may cause illness – even death. The herb ma huang (ephedra), for example, is traditionally used in China to treat short-term respiratory congestion. But the herb was marketed in the United States as a dietary aid. Long-term use led to at least a dozen deaths, heart attacks and strokes.
When used properly, traditional therapies can ease pain and assuage illness. WHO referenced studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of acupuncture in relieving pain and asthma. Other studies have shown that yoga can reduce asthma attacks, and that tai chi techniques can lessen elderly peoples fear of falls.
Additionally, three out of four people living with HIV or AIDS in Africa, North America and Europe use some form of traditional medicine for various symptoms.
The report also warned that further commercialization of traditional medicine through unregulated use could make therapies unaffordable for people who depend on them for primary health care. It recommends protecting traditional herbal remedies from companies seeking to patent them and ensuring medicinal plants are not over-harvested.
To carry out its strategy, WHO will help countries establish guidelines for using traditional medicine, supply scientific information, facilitate information sharing and support research into the safety and proper use of traditional medicine.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a center of the National Institutes of Health, has not taken a position on the strategy but expects to do so, spokeswoman Anita Greene said.
The World Health Organizations Strategy for Traditional Medicine for 2002-2005, aims to help countries: