African Traditional Medicine Day: Message of the WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo

United Nations, August31, 2011 - Today, we commemorate the Ninth African Traditional Medicine Day under the theme "Conservation of medicinal plants: Africa's Heritage". More than two thirds of the world's plant species are estimated to have medicinal value. Between 25-50% of modern medicines are derived from plants. Some notable examples are Artemisinin and Quinine, both of which are medicines for malaria. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 80% of the population in developing countries depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs.

The theme for this year's African Traditional Medicine Day celebration underscores the World Health Assembly resolution on medicinal plants; the Regional Strategy on Traditional Medicine; the Plan of Action on the Organization of African Unity Decade (2001–2010) for African Traditional Medicine; and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The adoption and ratification of these policy frameworks by countries of the Region has placed the conservation, rational and sustainable use of medicinal plants in the arena of public health.

Countries in the African Region are making progress in the cultivation and conservation of medicinal plants. Thirteen countries have adopted national policies on conservation of medicinal plants and the WHO Guidelines on Good Agricultural and Collection Practices. Seventeen countries are cultivating medicinal plants to varying degrees. Other countries have cultivated new medicinal plant varieties, conducted inventories including compilation of scientific information on medicinal plants and have developed guidelines on their collection and conservation.

Despite progress in many aspects of traditional medicine, countries are confronted with challenges such as the depletion of uncommon medicinal plants due to environmental degradation, deforestation, uncontrolled burning, livestock grazing, poor agricultural practices and timber logging. A number of these challenges have arisen because the bulk of the medicinal plant material used for commercial purposes are still obtained through wild-harvesting. Furthermore, many countries in the Region lack the necessary legislation for sustainable conservation of medicinal plants and mechanisms for the protection of endangered medicinal plant species.

Mitigating these challenges and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants. We recommend the cultivation of medicinal plants including development of botanical gardens; establishment of comprehensive databases on existing medicinal plants; and protection of endangered species of medicinal plants.

The private sector needs to be encouraged to invest in traditional medicine research and training as well as the cultivation and conservation of medicinal plants. Translation of relevant information on traditional medicine into local languages enhances understanding of the value of medicinal plants by the public and contributes to cultivation and conservation of medicinal plants.

I call upon academic and research institutions to compile medicinal plants inventories; conduct relevant research to generate scientific evidence on the safety, efficacy and quality of medicinal plants; and build capacity of human resources in this field. I also encourage the compilation of scientific information on medicinal plant species, focusing on scarce medicinal plants in Africa.

Let me also take the opportunity of the commemoration of the Ninth African Traditional Medicine Day, to urge our partners to continue to support the work of countries in designing and implementing their national programmes, policies and plans on the conservation of medicinal plants.

Saving the African Region's medicinal plant resources needs an effective, sustainable and coordinated conservation strategy. The stakes are high; we have to do all we can to conserve medicinal plants, our African heritage.

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