The World Health Organization evaluates alternative medicine methods

Many people turn to traditional or alternative medicine, but how effective are these methods really? A new World Health Organization (WHO) center has started to find out. The center is located in India, the country where alternative medicine is so important that it has its own ministry that supports complementary therapies like Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy.

The recent inauguration of the center in Jamnagar was attended by, among others, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. “The system of traditional medicine in India is not just a treatment, but a holistic approach to life,” he said. According to data from the World Health Organization, the Indian government has allocated about $250 million to the project.

“The center aims to be an innovation engine to drive the evidence, data and sustainability agenda in traditional medicine,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He also added that he would collaborate with traditional medicine practitioners from around the world and help set research standards.

Traditional medicine is a very broad field. According to the WHO statement on the center, 80 percent of the world’s population uses complementary medicines. These include acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine and herbal mixtures.

Traditional medicine is also represented in modern science. According to the World Health Organization, about 40 percent of all medicines approved today come from natural materials. The discovery of aspirin, for example, was based on previous conclusions about the antipyretic effect of willow bark. Research on artemisinin for use against malaria, for which the Nobel Prize was awarded in 2015, began with the study of ancient Chinese medicine texts.

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German biologist and science journalist Georg Roesheimer of Cochrane, an international network that provides the scientific basis for decision-making in the health sector, thinks it makes sense to take a closer look at treatments developed over centuries, and thus check their plausibility. And when in doubt, conduct good clinical studies.

The Cochrane Network is known specifically for “Cochrane Reviews,” which are systematic reviews that summarize all scientific evidence on a specific question in medicine or other health sciences.

However, Rueschemeyer also stressed that in addition to the traditional procedures mentioned by the World Health Organization, which form the basis of already approved treatments, one can find numerous examples where traditional procedures have been found to be ineffective or even dangerous, the ancient practice of bloodletting. According to the academic, it is always necessary to assess whether the procedure justifies spending large sums to conduct studies.

In addition, he continues, there are many Cochrane network reviews on the use of traditional methods, such as acupuncture for specific issues. However, he emphasizes, “From my personal Cochrane experience, I would say I haven’t found many Cochrane reviews that really show good evidence for a conventional procedure,” says Rueschemeyer.

The scientist specifies that this often happens because, when researching, only a few studies are found, often poorly conducted, that cannot prove or refute a benefit, which in turn leads to the question whether it is worth investing the limited research money In a procedure that seems scientifically implausible, for example, homeopathy.

German Professor Emeritus Edzard Ernst, who has long held a chair in alternative medicine at the University of Exeter in England, also points out that while it remains to be seen who will lead the center and what work will emerge, the WHO press release is riddled with rhetoric and platitudes.

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For its part, the World Health Organization made it clear that in the new center it wants to use modern technologies to study traditional medicine, among other things, artificial intelligence and big data. According to the organization, the center will be dedicated to creating a reliable evidence base for policies and standards related to traditional medicine products and practices, and will also help countries integrate them into their health systems.


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