Print version ISSN 0042-9686
Bull World Health Organ vol.82 n.8 Genebra Aug. 2004
New alternative medicine guide launched amidst increasing reports of adverse reactions
Reports of adverse reactions to alternative or traditional medicines have more than doubled in three years, according to WHO which released a new set of guidelines on 22 June. The document, Developing information on proper use of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine, is intended to help national authorities develop context-specific and reliable information for consumers who are considering using such medicines.
"WHO supports traditional and alternative medicines when these have demonstrated benefits for the patient and minimal risks," said WHO Director-General, Dr LEE Jong-wook. "But as more people use these medicines, governments should have the tools to ensure all stakeholders have the best information about their benefits and their risks."
Up to 80% of developing country populations rely on traditional medicine for their primary health care, due to cultural tradition or lack of alternatives. In wealthy countries on the other hand, the increasing popularity of natural medicines is based on the sometimes dangerous assumption that natural means safe.
According to WHO, the global increase in the use of traditional and alternative medicines has been accompanied by an increase in reports of adverse reactions. In China, a country where traditional therapies and products are widely used in parallel with conventional medicine, there were 9854 reported cases of adverse drug reactions in 2002 alone, up from 4000 between 1990 and 1999.
According to a WHO survey, 99 out of 142 countries said that the majority of traditional or alternative medicines in their country could be bought without prescription. In 39 countries, many traditional remedies were used for self-medication, bought or prepared by friends or acquaintances of the patient. These trends have raised concerns over the quality of the products used, their appropriateness for the condition and the lack of medical follow-up.
It is hoped that the guidelines will go some way in addressing these concerns. They include, for example, a quick checklist of basic questions to help facilitate proper medicine use. Advice is also provided to government authorities on preparing easy-to-access information and working with the mass media to sensitize and educate the population. Suggestions are given for several health system structures and processes needed to promote proper medicine use. The guidelines do not however, address the problem of poor quality traditional or alternative medicines or inappropriate practices.
The development of the guidelines was carried out with the financial and technical support of the Regional Government of Lombardy, in collaboration with the State University of Milan. The guidelines are based on evidence and experiences collected from 102 countries representing all WHO regions.
The guidelines are available from: http://www.who.int/medicines/library/trm/Consumer.pdf