WHO’s embrace of traditional oriental medicines puts health and wildlife at risk

University of Heidelberg, Germany.

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The World Health Organization’s decision to include traditional oriental medicines in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems effectively approves them for primary medical care (see Nature 561, 448–450; 2018). In my opinion, incorporating such contentious treatments into these guidelines is risky.

The antimalarial artemisinin is so far a lone active compound to emerge from the multi-billion-dollar industry of traditional oriental medicines. Active ingredients in such medicines need to be identified by rational investigation based on the scientific method. A long tradition doesn’t obviate the need for evidence: the galenic concoctions popular in ancient Greece were discarded with good reason.

Irrespective of their cultural origins, medicines should improve people’s lives. Legitimizing traditional oriental medicines at this point could cause sick people to forgo proven treatments and subject them to unknown and unnecessary side-effects. And because some of the treatments come from endangered species, it also risks driving animals such as the rhino to extinction.

Nature 563, 35 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07240-0
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