The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 80% of the population on the African continent relies on traditional medicine for their basic health needs. August 31 is African Traditional Medicine Day.

We caught up with Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) Faculty Member Professor Nceba Gqaleni, an expert in traditional medicine who is currently developing a traditional/natural medicine programme at AHRI, to find out more about the current and future role of traditional medicine in South Africa.

Why is it so important to mark African Traditional Medicine day?

African Traditional Medicine Day is an acknowledgement of the contribution traditional medicine has made to the health of the people of Africa for centuries. Furthermore, The African Union and the WHO Regional Office for Africa have declared the decades 2001-2010 and 2011-2020 the Decades of African Traditional Medicine and called for member countries to celebrate traditional medicine on 31 August.

What is South Africa’s traditional medicine response to Covid-19? Why is this important?

The Department of Health has published guidelines for Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) in dealing with Covid-19 and the lockdown. In addition, the Department of Science and Innovation has established an indigenous knowledge-based Covid-19 research team and a fund for research on South African traditional medicines against Covid-19. These interventions are very important to minimise risks for THPs who may be consulted by patients with Covid-19 and for research on the potential role of traditional medicines against Covid-19.

You’ve recently been elected to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) expert advisory committee for traditional medical responses to Covid-19. What work will this committee do?

The task of the advisory committee, among others, is to: Develop a master protocol for clinical trials of traditional medicines for the management of Covid-19 patients, develop a charter and terms of reference for the data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) for clinical trials of traditional medicines and to develop a guide on potential contributions of traditional medicine to the Covid-19 response.

What are your hopes for the future of traditional medicine?

It is our intention to have scientifically proven traditional/natural medicines included on the national Essential Medicines List. That will promote patient choice.