Explained: WHO & traditional medicine

News: Groundbreaking ceremony for the first-of-its-kind WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine (GCTM) will be held in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

What is traditional medicine?

The WHO describes traditional medicine as –

The total sum of the “knowledge, skills and practices indigenous and different cultures have used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose and treat physical and mental illness”.

As per WHO, the reach of traditional medicine encompasses ancient practices such as acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine and herbal mixtures as well as modern medicines.

According to WHO estimates, 80% of the world’s population uses traditional medicine.

In India, traditional medicine is often defined as including practices and therapies — such as yoga, Ayurveda, Siddha — that have been part of Indian tradition historically, as well as others — such as homeopathy — that became part of Indian tradition over the years.

Ayurveda and yoga are practised widely across the country

the Siddha system is followed predominantly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala

the Sowa-Rigpa system is practised mainly in Leh-Ladakh and Himalayan regions such as Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Lahaul & Spiti

What will be the GCTM be about?

India has committed an estimated $250 million to support the GCTM’s establishment, infrastructure and operations.

Aim: Evidence-based research, innovation, and data analysis to optimise the contribution of traditional medicine to global health. Its main focus will to develop norms, standards and guidelines in technical areas relating to traditional medicine.

The GCTM will support efforts to implement the WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy (2014-23)

The strategy aims to support nations in developing policies & action plans to strengthen the role of traditional medicine in pursuing the goal of universal health coverage.

Why has WTO felt the need to advance knowledge of traditional medicine?

The WHO says 170 of its 194 WHO Member States have reported the use of traditional medicine. Moreover, these member states have asked for its support in creating a body of “reliable evidence and data on traditional medicine practices and products”.

Jamnagar centre will serve as the hub, and focus on building a “solid evidence base” for policies and “help countries integrate it as appropriate into their health systems”.

2]. There is a need to conserve biodiversity and sustainability as about 40% of approved pharmaceutical products today derive from natural substances.

For example, the discovery of aspirin drew on traditional medicine formulations using the bark of the willow tree, the contraceptive pill was developed from the roots of wild yam plants and child cancer treatments have been based on the rosy periwinkle.

3]. WHO has referred to modernisation of the ways traditional medicine is being studied. Artificial intelligence is now used to map evidence and trends in traditional medicine.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to study brain activity and the relaxation response that is part of some traditional medicine therapies such as meditation and yoga.

4]. Traditional medicine is also being extensively updated by mobile phone apps, online classes, and other technologies. The GCTM will serve as a hub for other countries, and build standards on traditional medicine practices and products.

Has India taken up similar collaborative efforts earlier?


– Project collaboration agreement (PCA): In 2016, the Ministry of AYUSH signed a PCA with the WHO in the area of traditional medicine. The aim was to create benchmarks for training in yoga, Ayurveda, Unani and Panchakarma, for traditional medicine practitioners.

– The collaboration also aimed at promoting the quality and safety of traditional medicine and consumer protection by supporting WHO in the development and implementation of the WHO Traditional and Complementary Medicine Strategy.

MoUs with various institutes, universities and organisations from countries across the globe were signed.

Source: This post is based on the article “Explained: WHO & traditional medicine” published in The Indian Express on 19th Apr 22.

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