What India’s Traditional Medicine mean for Africa

By Samir Bhattacharya
Article Traditional healer Gogo Phephisile Maseko attends to patients using a blend of cannabis and other herbs in Johannesburg AFPGetty
JUN 30, 2023 LISTEN
Traditional healer Gogo Phephisile Maseko attends to patients using a blend of cannabis and other herbs in Johannesburg (AFP/Getty)

Traditional medicine, also known as complementary and alternative medicine, is the oldest form of healthcare that has endured the test of time. The World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledges that nearly 80% of the world's population uses traditional medicine in some capacity. In other words, for millions of individuals worldwide, traditional medicine serves as their first line of defence in the fight against a wide range of illnesses. And nowadays, traditional medicines complement significantly to modern medicines.

Many African countries are already well-versed in traditional medicines. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises African traditional medicine's significant contributions to the health and well-being of the continent. Since 2003, in recognition of its contribution to the African health system, WHO commemorates August 31 as African Traditional Medicine Day (ATMD).

Currently, more than 40 African nations have developed national traditional medicine strategies. Additionally, 30 of them have incorporated traditional medicine into their national strategies. Furthermore, 39 countries have created regulatory frameworks for traditional medicine practitioners. Traditional medicine research and development is an extremely promising field in Africa, with 34 research centres in 26 countries. If adequately promoted internationally, it also has enormous financial potential. Ghana, which has already established traditional medicine clinics in 40 regional hospitals, is one of the forerunners in this area. Similarly, the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) has expressed its dedication to ensuring that African Traditional Medicine (ATM) is standardised in Nigeria and beyond.

Most African Member States today cultivate medicinal and aromatic plants to promote continental efforts toward equitable access to medical goods and technologies. In 14 countries, more than 100 herbal medicines have been registered with national regulatory agencies, and 19 others have facilities for the domestic manufacturing of herbal medicines. Over 45 herbal medicines are registered on the national critical medication lists across Africa.

Further, 39 countries have established legal frameworks for those practising traditional medicine. Another 25 countries now teach traditional medicine as part of their health science curricula. Training programmes have been established for both traditional health practitioners and health science students to improve the human resource base for primary healthcare and traditional medicine.

It has been found that many Africans go to hospitals as a last resort, as their first port of call is conventional or faith healers. And these traditional healers are well-trusted and extremely popular. Their popularity is ascribed to their thorough consideration of their patients' socio-cultural backgrounds. Many of the traditional medicines that they use can be found in India. Therefore, India-Africa collaboration on traditional medicine will augur well for both continents, benefitting billions of people.

On the other hand, traditional medicine has a long history in India. In fact, Indian traditional medicine is one of the oldest branches in the history of medicine. India has always played a pioneering role in spreading the knowledge of traditional medicines across the world. While Egyptians learnt about it through sea trade with India, Greeks and Romans learnt through Alexander's invasion. Likewise, the knowledge of traditional medicine from India spread to the east with the spread of Buddhism. As India excels in this domain, India must play a more active role in its global development.

According to some studies, traditional medicine accounts for 70% of primary healthcare in rural India. Among others, Ayurveda is currently the most widely used form of traditional Indian medicine. Ayurveda is based on the notion that people can achieve physical, mental, and emotional healing by living in harmony with nature. Unsurprisingly, Holistic care is the principal feature of Ayurveda, which addresses the body, mind, and spirit together.

India is one of the world's most natural resource-rich countries. India is home to 47,000 plant species, 15 agroclimatic zones, and 15,000 medicinal plants. About 7,000 of these species are applied in Ayurveda, 700 in Unani, 600 in Siddha, and 30 in modern medicine. Recognising the importance of its bioresources, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) has marked India as one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries.

Indian traditional medicine has long attracted interest from the international community as well as funding for study and development. In fact, Indian conventional medicine is regarded as world's one of the most advanced alternative treatment method. In recognition of India's contributions to the field, the WHO has planned to open its Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Jamnagar, Gujarat, on April 19, 2022. Beyond India, traditional medicines also have a lot of potential across the world. Currently, 170 of the 194 WHO Member States, representing more than 80% of the world's population, are using traditional medicine in some form or other. Through this centre, the Indian Ministry of Ayush would be able to assist all these member states across the world by gathering reliable information and data on diverse traditional medical practices.

India has a robust industrial base, a thriving pharmaceutical industry, and a wealth of knowledge concerning the traditional medical system. India has successfully fused the best features of wellness practice and modern medicine. Today, India has one of the most accessible, affordable, and high-quality healthcare systems in the world. Furthermore, India and Africa have striking similarities in climatic conditions, biodiversity, physiognomy, people, cultures, and family values. Patients commonly receive care from traditional medical systems in both India and Africa. Several existing Indian traditional medicines can benefit Africa. For example, Ayush 64, a polyherbal formulation that has been effective in treating asymptomatic, mild, and moderate COVID-19 infection in India, can also be used on African COVID patients.

When the world desperately seeks a more sustainable and inclusive future, Africa has a unique opportunity to set the trend. Africa can leverage its indigenous medical knowledge to contribute to the global health agenda. For Africa, traditional Indian medicine, including Ayurveda, Yoga and Unani medicine presents an opportunity to prevent and treat different physical and mental diseases. By promoting and incorporating these practices into the health system, Africa can preserve and expand this priceless knowledge for future generations. And for this a strong partnership with India will be vital.