They have been used since time began and you've probably read the term on the labels of complementary or herbal medicines. But what does traditional mean?
Traditional medicine has a long history, fossil records reveal that our ancestors used plants as medicines at least 60,000 years ago. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the term Traditional medicine as: "The sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness."
Every region around the world has its own indigenous medicines based on herbs and plants grown in the area. It's thought that early humans learnt about plants when gathering food. Inevitably, as well as edible plants, our ancestors also consumed noxious plants. Over time valuable lessons were learnt. For example, what were the edible options? Which plants or parts of plants should be avoided. And, which could be used to make remedies that could positively affect the health and wellbeing.
So, it's not surprising that some of today's effective, conventional medicines are derived from traditional remedies. For example, the ancient Egyptians used myrtle leaves to treat aches and pains. And Hippocrates, widely accepted as the father of medicine, used an extract of willow bark in the fourth century BC to treat fever. It wasn't until the 1800s that the active ingredient in both these remedies was found to be salicylic acid (aspirin). Aspirin is still widely used today. You could say that in this case, science followed traditional medicine and not the other way around. And here's another.
In 1972, the Chinese chemist Tu Youuou announced the discovery of a substance, artemisinin, found in a Traditional Chinese medicinal herb - wormwood (Artemesia annua), which inhibits the malaria parasite. It was part of a herbal medicine formulated in the fourth century AD. This discovery saved millions of lives and earned Tu Youuou the Nobel prize for medicine in 2015.
So where are we today? In an ideal world, traditional medicine would be an option offered by a well-functioning, people-centred health system that balances curative services with preventive care. Traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM) is an important and often underestimated health resource with many applications, especially in the prevention and management of lifestyle-related chronic diseases, and in meeting the health needs of ageing populations. Given the unique health challenges of the 21st century, interest in T&CM is undergoing a revival.
2019 marks a time when the World Health Assembly (WHA) saw the official release of the WHO Global Report on Traditional and Complementary Medicine. The report provides a comprehensive overview on Traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM) and includes input from over 90% of WHO member states. Importantly it indicates an increased acceptance and engagement with T&CM professions globally. It provides valuable information for policy-makers, health professionals and the public for capitalising on the potential contribution of T&CM to health and well-being.
CMA’s Health Industry Health Future Strategic Plan 2020-2025 lays the foundations for a more consumer led approach to healthcare where complementary medicines are part of an integrated and preventive healthcare framework.