WHO’s Global Centre for
Blending ancient practices with modern science
The World Health Organization has launched its Global Centre for Traditional Medicine (GCTM) in Jamnagar in Gujarat state of India. Aimed at unlocking the potential of traditional medicine by blending ancient practices with modern science, the hub will be temporarily housed at the Institute of Teaching and Research in Ayurveda in Jamnagar on India’s west coast until the new 35-acre (14-hectare) site in the city is completed in 2024. The WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also joined the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi on April 19, to lay the foundation stone of the GCTM. It may be noted that more than five decades ago, the world’s first Ayurvedic university was established in Jamnagar.
This global knowledge centre, supported by an investment of USD250 million from the Government of India, will be an accessible, eco-friendly and interactive facility showcasing global traditions and modern scientific advances in traditional medicine. It will harness the potential of traditional medicine from across the world through modern science and technology to improve the health of people and the planet. The GCTM reflects the WHO Director-General’s leadership vision that harnessing the potential of traditional medicine would be a game-changer for health when founded on evidence, innovation and sustainability.
On November 3, 2020, WHO Director-General announced the establishment of the WHO’s GCTM in India. In March this year, India’s Union Cabinet approved its establishment in Jamnagar with the signing of a host country agreement between the Government of India and the WHO.
What is traditional medicine?
The WHO describes traditional medicine as the total sum of the “knowledge, skills and practices indigenous and different cultures have used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose and treat physical and mental illness.” “Its reach encompasses ancient practices such as acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine and herbal mixtures as well as modern medicines,” the WHO says.
Why is it needed?
Traditional medicine has been an integral resource for health for centuries in communities around the world, and it is still a mainstay for some with inequities in access to conventional medicine. Around 80 percent of the world’s population is estimated to use traditional medicine, such as herbal medicines, acupuncture, yoga, indigenous therapies and others.
Of the WHO’s 194 member states, 170 states report the use of traditional medicine, and their priority request to WHO is for evidence and data to inform policies, standards and regulatory frameworks for safe, cost-effective and equitable use. The WHO says that these 170 member states have asked for its support in creating a body of “reliable evidence and data on traditional medicine practices and products”. It says the Jamnagar centre will serve as the hub, and focus on building a “solid evidence base” for policies and “help countries integrate it as appropriate into their health systems”. It further says that the socio-cultural practice and biodiversity heritages of traditional medicine are invaluable resources to evolve inclusive, diverse sustainable development. Traditional medicine is also part of the growing trillion-dollar global health, wellness, beauty and pharmaceutical industries. Over 40% of pharmaceutical formulations are based on natural products and landmark drugs, including aspirin and artemisinin, originated from traditional medicine. The contribution of traditional medicine to national health systems is not yet fully realized, as millions of accredited traditional medicine workers, facilities, expenditures and products are not fully accounted for.
Challenges to traditional medicine
The WHO has flagged many challenges faced by traditional medicine. For instance, national health systems and strategies do not yet fully integrate traditional medicine workers, accredited courses and health facilities.
Second, the WHO has stressed the need to conserve biodiversity and sustainability as about 40% of approved pharmaceutical products today derive from natural substances. “For example, the discovery of aspirin drew on traditional medicine formulations using the bark of the willow tree, the contraceptive pill was developed from the roots of wild yam plants and child cancer treatments have been based on the rosy periwinkle,” the WHO says.
Third, the WHO has referred to modernisation of the ways traditional medicine is being studied. Artificial intelligence is now used to map evidence and trends in traditional medicine. “Functional magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] is used to study brain activity and the relaxation response that is part of some traditional medicine therapies such as meditation and yoga, which are increasingly drawn on for mental health and well-being in stressful times,” it says.
Fourth, the WHO has said traditional medicine is also being extensively updated by mobile phone apps, online classes, and other technologies.
Goals of GCTM
The GCTM will serve as a hub for other countries, and build standards on traditional medicine practices and products. It will lay down five goals.
1. To create a database of traditional knowledge system using technology;
2. to create international standards for testing and certification of traditional medicines so that confidence in these medicines improves;
3. to evolve as a platform where global experts of traditional medicine come together and share experiences;
4. to mobilize funding for research in the field of traditional medicine; and
5. to develop protocols for holistic treatment of specific diseases so that patients could benefit from both traditional and modern medicine.
As lead investor in the GCTM, India has committed an estimated US$250 million to support the Centre’s establishment, infrastructure and operations. This includes 35 acres of land in Jamnagar for a new building and premises in 2024, an interim office, and support for the GCTM operational costs with a 10-year commitment. While the new Centre is being built, an interim office will be established at the Institute of Teaching and Research in Ayurveda (ITRA), which is a WHO Collaborating Centre.
The writer is a member of staff.
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