By Harriet Ng’ok
Inadequate access to and cost of modern medicines and drugs to treat and manage diseases in middle- and low-income countries, especially in Africa, may have contributed to the widespread use of traditional medicines in these regions, especially in poor households.
A study published in the African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines (AJTCAM) posits that in 36 low and middle-income countries, drugs were reportedly way beyond the reach of large sections of the populations.
The study, titled Trends and Challenges of Traditional Medicine in Africa, indicates that the widespread use of traditional medicine in Africa can be attributed to its accessibility.
For instance, the ratio of traditional healers to the African population is 1: 500 compared to 1:40 000 medical doctors.
Indeed, most medical doctors available in Africa are concentrated in urban areas and cities at the expense of rural regions.
For millions of people in rural areas, native healers remain their health providers.
It is noteworthy that before modern medicine was introduced, traditional medicine was the dominant medical system available to millions of people in Africa in rural and urban communities.
However, the arrival of the Europeans marked a significant turning point in the history of this age-long tradition and culture.
That notwithstanding, the role of African traditional medicines cannot be overstated.
In Africa, according to WHO, traditional medicine is culturally entrenched, accessible, and affordable, serving as a primary source of healthcare to over 80% of the population.
This practice capitalizes on the rich biodiversity (plants and herbs) and effectively balances the relationship between man and nature, as well as indigenous knowledge passed on through generations.
Traditional medicine is also important because it represents a multibillion industry that can help boost a country’s economy if well managed.
In addition, using quality-assured traditional medicine can make it easier to provide health care, especially in remote rural areas where conventional healthcare systems are limited.
Whereas modern medicine demands standard dosages that usually vary with age, body weight and disease severity, traditional healers are more likely to give their patients a unique dosage or combination of medicines concocted only during the consultation and based on the patient’s symptoms.
Indeed, empirical evidence has shown that several traditional medicines are important and effective therapeutic regimens in managing a wide spectrum of diseases, some of which may not be effectively managed using modern medicines.
It is in recognition of the prominent role played by traditional medicines that over two decades ago, WHO designated August 31 every year to mark African Traditional Medicine Day and honor the integral role of traditional medicine in the health and welfare of Africa’s posterity.
Notably, Member States have used the day to catalyze discussion forums around national policies on traditional medicine, cultivation of medicinal plants, including training of traditional health practitioners, and their collaboration with their conventional counterparts.
These activities prompted over 40 African countries to, as of 2022, develop national traditional medicine policies, up from only eight in 2000.
In Ghana, for instance, the Government reimburses patients’ consultations with traditional health practitioners through an insurance scheme and is planning to do the same for the herbal medicines in its national essential medicines list.
This is to ensure affordability and increased access to health services.
Harriet’s Botanicals, a company domiciled in Kenya but exporting traditional medicinal products within Africa and globally, has made significant strides in integrating Traditional Indigenous Medicine with Allopathic medicine.
It has accomplished this by working with stakeholders such as the University of Nairobi Pharmacology and Pharmacognosy Department and the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, and lately lobbying for thorough regulation and legislation in health to push this agenda forward.
The company has received patents, copyrights, and trademarks for its products and also works directly with medical practitioners such as doctors.
According to WHO, 30 countries have also integrated traditional medicine into their national policies, a 100% improvement from the situation in 2000.
Additionally, 39 countries have established regulatory frameworks for traditional medicine practitioners, compared to only one in 2000, demonstrating good governance and leadership.
Despite these positive steps, challenges in embracing traditional medicine still abound.
The introduction of Western culture, particularly into rural parts of Africa, has negatively impacted traditional medicine’s role tremendously.
As Western education, Christianity and increased contact with the global community become an integral part of rural communities, taboos, traditions and customs have been affected and, in some instances, abandoned altogether.
Despite these challenges, there is increasing evidence that traditional medicine will continue to hold sway in both Africa’s rural and urban communities.
This supplements modern healthcare facilities available to meet a wide range of healthcare needs.
To minimize the current distrust between modern and traditional doctors and to achieve the objective of regulation, standardization and cooperation, both traditional and contemporary doctors must acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses.
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They would then integrate the two forms of medication in a genuine concern about the need to attain Universal Health Coverage (UHC).
The author is founder and owner of Harriet’s Botanical. For health-related services, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.