Traditional medicine needs to be embraced and promoted so that it finds expression through combating diseases, the Department of Science and Technology said on Thursday.
"If it is to play a strategic role in combating the heavy burden of disease, it will need to be mainstreamed, so that it can benefit from advances in the other sciences," said director general Molapo Qhobela.
He was speaking at an African traditional medicine and intellectual property workshop held in Pretoria.
Qhobela said South Africa should learn from China and India, which had effectively integrated traditional medicine into their health systems.
How the meds could be used in fight against HIV/Aids
He spoke of the high prevalence of HIV/Aids in the country, amidst government's implementation of the world's largest treatment programmes; he said innovative ideas would be required to address the situation.
Qhobela said a potential solution was in the country's abundant biodiversity and indigenous knowledge systems.
He further emphasised the need to preserve African medicine instead of marginalising it as it has been the case for many years.
"One way of securing the future of indigenous knowledge and research on traditional medicine is the advancement and refinement of regulatory regimes," he said.
Potential in traditional meds
The drafting of ethical guidelines for researchers and research institutions had already been completed, Qhobela said.
He highlighted that research and innovation in African traditional medicine had tremendous potential to improve the quality of life of many people.
The department planned to conduct research on medicinal plants, a move in which the Traditional Healers Organisation wanted to involve traditional healers themselves.
Spokeswoman Phephisile Maseko said the organisation was not objecting to the research, but they believed that government conducting the research on its own, excluding them, would undermine the work they had done so far.
Meds have more support in the public
Maseko highlighted that 72% of South Africans made use of traditional medicines, adding that Christianity and the media were the ones who had demonised them.
Of the known plant species in the country, 3000 of them have medicinal potential, she said.
Maseko said it pained her that traditional medicines had for a number of years been exploited by big conglomerates. She said healers were interacting with government to ensure that never happened again.
"You can’t take traditional medicine and isolate individuals. Traditional healers should benefit," she said.
Government gives an ear to healers
Maseko said although there was a huge gap in terms of government's support for indigenous knowledge, it was now stepping into the right direction by attempting to listen.
"We would like to see protocols out in place to protect our knowledge, so that traditional practitioners can give out information knowing it's protected. We can’t have traditional healers who remain poor while their knowledge is taken," she said.
"We want to be part of the BEE of government, so we can develop and become economically advanced. People advance at the expense of our own knowledge."
(Sapa, July 2011)