“We have finally started to notice that there is real curative value in local herbs and remedies. In fact, we are also becoming aware that there are little or no side effects to most natural remedies, and that they are often more effective than Western medicine.” - Anne Wilson Schaef
Every year, in the third week of September in Australia, National Herbal Medicine Week is observed. This is a time that the public is made aware of the importance of herbs (and plants in general), as sources of medicinal preparations. Herbal medicine practitioners promote herbal medicine to the general public, they correct misinformation and myths surrounding herbal medicine, and they share their knowledge and show people the strength, potential and value of herbal medicine. In both the West and the East, herbal medicine has a strong tradition that goes back for thousands of years.
Nearly a quarter of all modern medicines are derived from natural products, many of which were first used in traditional remedies. In Africa and Asia, 80% of the population still uses traditional remedies rather than modern medicine for primary healthcare. Even in developed nations, traditional medicine is gaining appeal. Up to 80% of the population in Western countries has tried an alternative therapy such as traditional Chinese medicine or herbal medicine. A survey conducted in 2010, found that 74% of US medical students believe that Western medicine would benefit by integrating traditional or alternative therapies and practices.
The industry is worth big money. In 2005, traditional medicines worth US$14 billion were sold in China. And in 2007, Brazil saw revenues of US$160 million from traditional therapies, part of a global market of more than US$60 billion. It is no wonder that many multinational drug companies are now devoting many resources to making and marketing natural medicines and supplements.
Modern medicine is desperately short of new treatments. It takes many years for a new drug to get through the research and development pipeline to manufacture and the cost is enormous. Dependable remedies in the modern doctor’s armamentarium may also become obsolete as growing drug resistance evolves. This is especially associated with the misuse of antibiotics and has rendered several such medications and other life-saving drugs useless. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are increasingly turning their eyes to traditional medicine and herbal compounds.
Making traditional medicine mainstream and incorporating age-old substances and treatments into modern healthcare is difficult. Ensuring that traditional medicines meet modern safety and efficacy standards is not easy. There is also concern among conservationists that a growing traditional medicine market threatens biodiversity through overharvesting of wild medicinal plants. Beyond the sustainability of natural resources, combining traditional and modern medicines faces challenges that are the result of key differences in how each is practiced, evaluated and managed. One the one hand there is the empirical, ad-hoc, individualised approach of traditional medicine, while on the other hand, the Western medical approach is rigorously regulated and prescriptive, rigid and formulaic, as well as being supported by evidence through experimental and clinical trials.
There is no doubt that traditional medicine has much to offer global health, especially as new drugs are urgently needed. If both developed and developing countries joined research capacities in collaboration, new scientific techniques could spark a revival in global health research and development and many of the age-old herbal treatments and traditional lore could be incorporated usefully into modern medicine practice. Integrating traditional medicine into modern healthcare is certainly being taken seriously by some of the biggest research bodies worldwide. In 2007, 62 countries had national institutes for traditional medicine — up from 12 in 1970.