The term traditional medicine refers to health practices, methods, knowledge, and beliefs which involve the medicinal use of animal plants and minerals, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and practices either separately or in combination - to care for, diagnose, or prevent diseases or maintain health.
Different countries use traditional medicine in Africa, Asia and Latin America to meet some of their primary health care needs. In Africa, up to 80% of the population uses traditional medicine for this.
In industrialised countries "complementary" or "parallel" medicine is the equivalent of traditional medicine.
Its use is widespread and continuing to increase
Traditional medicine is still very widely used in all regions of the developing world and its use is continuing to increase in industrialised countries.
In China, traditional plant preparations make up between 30 and 50% of total medicine consumption. In Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Zambia, medicinal plants administered at home account for 60% of the first line treatments for children suffering from fever and high temperature due to malaria. The WHO considers that most childbirths in several African countries are performed by traditional child delivery practitioners.
More than 50% of the population has used complementary or parallel medicine at least once in Europe, North America and other industrialised regions. 75% of people living with HIV or AIDS use traditional, complementary, or parallel medicine medicine in San Francisco, London and South Africa. 70% of Canadians have used complementary medicine at least once. 90% of people take a natural remedy at some time in their lives in Germany. The number of doctors who have received special training in natural medicine has almost doubled to 10,800 in between 1995 and 2000. 158 million adults use complementary medicine products in North America according to the Commission for Alternative and Complementary Medicines, representing $17 billion dollars spent on traditional remedies in 2000. The annual expenditure on parallel medicine in the United Kingdom is $US 230 million.
The worldwide market for medicinal plants is growing rapidly and currently worth more than $60 billion dollars per year.
Safety and efficacy problems
Randomised clinical trials have only delivered convincing scientific findings for various uses of acupuncture, some medicinal plants and some manual therapies. More research is needed to confirm the safety of using several other practices and medicinal plants.
Lack of regulation or incorrect use of traditional practices and medicines may have harmful or even dangerous effects.
For example, the plant "Ma Huang" (Ephredra) is traditionally used in China to treat respiratory tract congestion. It was marketed as a dietetic aid in the United States and excessive doses lead to at least a dozen deaths, and to cardiac and cerebrovascular accidents.
At least 70 people in Belgium had to undergo renal transplantation for dialysis for interstitial renal fibrosis after taking a preparation produced from an incorrect species of plant for weight loss purposes.
Biodiversity and sustainability
In addition to safety problems, there are concerns that the growth of the medicinal plants market which has enormous commercial consequences, may threaten biodiversity because of the plundering of raw materials needed to manufacture natural medicines and other health products. If they are not regulated these practices may lead to the extension of species in danger and destruction of natural resources and habitats.
As related problem is that the protection in international patent law and most of the conventional national patent laws are not currently sufficient to protect traditional knowledge and biodiversity.