WHO Guidelines on Complementary and Alternative Medicine
A Healthnotes Newswire Opinion
July 1, 2004—The World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines on June 22 designed to help national health authorities “develop context specific and reliable information for consumer use of alternative medicines.” Despite the document’s generally balanced tone, some news and health organizations have chosen to sensationalize the relatively few unfavorable statements made in these guidelines, and by doing so they misrepresent the WHO’s overall supportive attitude towards alternative medicine.
The WHO guidelines address all forms of traditional medicine (TM) or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practiced worldwide, which include both medication-based therapies such as herbal remedies and dietary supplements, and procedure-based therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic. It attempts to make recommendations that are relevant to all countries despite differences in healthcare systems, cultural influences, and popular use of TM and CAM. Its main objective is to help governmental and other local organizations develop consumer information resources to educate their constituents about the correct use of TM/CAM therapies.
In a section entitled “The Benefits of TM/CAM,” they acknowledge the increasing amount of scientific evidence supporting some of these therapies, along with other advantages such as lower cost and fewer adverse events in many cases compared with conventional medicine and surgery. The section entitled “The Risks Involved in the Use of TM/CAM” notes that procedure-based therapies are usually safe when delivered by qualified practitioners, but that medication-based therapies can be hazardous when contamination and adulteration occurs, when consumers use products incorrectly, or when people taking conventional medications do not inform their doctors about natural medicines they are also taking.
The source for most information reported by news and health organizations is a June 22 press release by the WHO, which itself leads with the provocative statement that “Adverse drug reactions to alternative medicines have more than doubled in three years.” However, given the increased popularity enjoyed by alternative medicine in recent years, reports of adverse effects, even if they are rare, would be expected to rise. Furthermore, much of this increase has taken place in China, where there are special problems related to adulteration of natural medicines with drugs and toxic metals. One may assume that the WHO chose these dramatic words for their press release because they are sure to gain attention—but the authors of this article follow through with a fair representation of the guidelines as a whole. Taken out of context by others who do not give the same balanced coverage, this type of biased statement does not do justice to the comprehensive scope of the considerations the WHO guidelines present.
The WHO guidelines give appropriate warnings about adulterated and contaminated natural medicines, and against the use of alternative therapies by unqualified practitioners. They acknowledge that patients using alternative medicines should inform their doctors to help prevent unwanted interactions. They call for increased efforts to educate consumers about the correct use of traditional remedies, to minimize the risk of adverse effects.
The WHO document makes additional recommendations for improvement needed in many countries, such as in quality control of herbal medicines; development of reliable treatment guidelines; adequate training, licensing, and professional development for traditional and alternative practitioners; and better collaboration between conventional healthcare professionals and TM/CAM practitioners.
Considering the potential benefits of properly practiced TM/CAM therapies highlighted in this document, including safety and affordability, the media would do well to inform people rather than discourage them from considering all available healthcare options. While it is not uncommon for media to promote negative information about alternative therapies—presumably because raising alarms makes for more eye-catching news—such slanted reporting obscures the information that is most useful to the public these organizations serve. Far from condemning alternative medicine, as some news coverage has implied, the WHO appears to support the successful integration of these therapies into the mainstream of healthcare worldwide.
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James Gerber, MS, DC, is the Scientific Advisor for the Healthnotes Newsletter, an exclusive product of Healthnotes, Inc. Dr. Gerber is Associate Professor of Clinical Sciences at Western States Chiropractic College in Portland, Oregon and a member of the Adjunct Faculty of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine and the University of Bridgeport. In addition, he teaches post-graduate courses for several professional colleges. Dr. Gerber is the author of the Handbook of Preventive and Therapeutic Nutrition (Aspen, 1992) and a contributor to Conservative Management of Sports Injuries (Williams & Wilkins, 1997).
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