Traditional Medicine: the cure or the cause?

What happens when you get sick? Here, you might visit the doctor, perhaps the hospital if it’s serious, receive some prescription drugs or antibiotics manufactured by Pfizer or Novartis and be sent on your way. However this is not the case in many parts of the world, where traditional medicines derived from plants and animals are relied upon. In her talk, Manjari revealed some of the controversies surrounding these practices, particularly in South-East Asia. Traditional medical practices rely on the knowledge and beliefs of indigenous people and are generally strongly ingrained in local culture.

chinese-herbs

A Chinese traditional medicine store

However, with up to 80% of the world’s population relying on traditional medicines, there is growing concern for the negative impact this may have on some of the earth’s rare animal species and the implications for conservation. For example, Chinese Traditional Medicine uses derivatives from a number of endangered animals including tigers, rhinos, seahorses and bears. Not only are these animals traded illegally, they often suffer extreme ill treatment and unbearable pain in their captivity and the extraction of desired body parts. In the case of the Rhino, poaching has increased by 9000% in South Africa since 2007, as networks of organised criminals have grown. Captive breeding programmes are now seen as the only hope to protect rhinos from extinction. Sadly the rarity of these animals does not help protect them from being used in traditional practices; it only increases their market price. Perhaps worst of all, there is little to no scientific evidence that animal-derived medicines are effective in medical terms.

A number of plants are also used in traditional medicine, with their effects being better understood. For example the Rosy Periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, native to Madagascar, provides two cancer treatments, making it extremely sought after. While this pretty little flower brings in a lot of money for pharmaceutical companies, barely any of this finds its way to extremely poor Madagascar, bringing the ethics of traditional herbal medicine into question.

periwinkle

The Rosy Periwinkle may solve the problem of cancer but doesn’t benefit the people of its tropical homeland.

With these issues raised by Manjari and myself in mind, let us look towards the future of traditional medicine. One of the main problems is that these practices are deeply ingrained in societies and have been practiced for thousands of years in some cases. Regardless, governments and international bodies need to take notice of the situation and the damage animal- and plant-derived medicines are having on biodiversity and social structures. This may be through enforcing tougher controls on illegal poaching and the trade of rare animals or by providing wider, easier access to modern medicines. For the sake of biodiversity and human health, something has got to give.

By Amy Richie

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