New World Center for Traditional Medicine could be a game changer WHO’s Poonam Khetrapal
In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Teros Ghebreyesus, inaugurated the World Center for Traditional Medicine (GCTM) of the World Health Organization (WHO). ) in Jamnagar, Gujarat.
Modi pledged $250 million for the establishment, infrastructure and operations of the institute. The whole world is keeping tabs on the fact that the central government could be a game changer by focusing on strengthening the evidence base of traditional medicine.
In an effort to get more insight into GCTM and the current Covid-19 situation, BW Businessworld spoke with Poonam Khetrapal, WHO Regional Directorate, South East Asia.
Khetrapal explained the importance of traditional medicines and WHO’s plan to partner with the Ayush Ministry and the Union government to build a global center for traditional medicine. Edited excerpts:
How will the establishment of the WHO Global Center for Traditional Medicine in India help us?
Over 80% of the people in the world use traditional medicine and practices and for many people traditional medicine is the first port of call. In India, traditional medicine and practices have been used since ancient times and are strongly embedded in culture and daily life.
All over the world and in India, there are many examples of traditional medicines transformed into modern medicines with products such as turmeric, neem and jamun. Yet, there is still work to be done to identify, develop and test these products and to integrate traditional medicine into the traditional health care delivery system.
The new WHO Global Center for Traditional Medicine could be a game-changer by focusing on strengthening the evidence base for traditional medicine, bringing together evidence and data to inform policies, standards and regulatory frameworks, ensuring sustainability and equity and, innovation and technology to maximize the role of traditional medicine in global health and sustainable development.
What is the importance of traditional medicines in the health system?
Traditional medicine and practices are used in more than 170 of WHO’s 194 member countries and play a vital role in people’s health and well-being. More than 40% of pharmaceutical formulations are based on natural products and many contemporary drugs have their origins in traditional medicine. Traditional medicine is part of the growing global health, wellness, beauty and pharmaceutical industries due to its unique and holistic approach to health. Traditional medicine will also complement the modern medicine system to prevent and control non-communicable diseases and mental health.
The current Covid-19 pandemic has further impacted health systems across the world and all countries need to mobilize all available resources, including traditional medicines, to recover from the pandemic, close the gaps in the health coverage and accelerate progress towards the health targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.
As Regional Director for the South-East Asia Region of the World Health Organization, what will be your three priorities for advancing progress towards ending Covid-19?
We can and must end the acute phase of the pandemic this year. Countries should boost immunization coverage with a focus on at-risk groups, including frontline medical workers, the elderly, and immunocompromised people. The WHO has asked countries to vaccinate 70% of their population by the middle of this year. The WHO South-East Asia Region has made commendable progress in vaccinating people against Covid-19. The 10 countries of the WHO South-East Asia Region have already reached the milestone of vaccinating 40% of their population with the primary series of vaccines against Covid-19. Three countries have reached the target of 70% coverage with the primary series and we must accelerate our efforts to extend coverage.
Second, we must continue to improve surveillance, strengthen laboratories and collect public health intelligence to track the virus and see how it evolves and spreads in order to adapt our responses and measures. Third, we need to strengthen our clinical care for Covid-19 and resilient healthcare systems. Fourth, we must continue research and development and ensure equitable access to tools and supplies. Fifth, ensure coordination as the response shifts from emergency mode to long-term respiratory disease management.
Together, we must all take action to prevent the virus from spreading further. This means wearing masks correctly, practicing hand hygiene, keeping a safe distance and getting vaccinated too.
The coronavirus has started to spread again, where are we going wrong?
The fact is that the virus never stopped being transmitted. While around the world the number of new cases and deaths from Covid-19 has continued to decline since the end of March 2022, this does not mean that the pandemic is over. During the week of April 11-17, over 5 million cases and over 18,000 deaths were reported worldwide. The drop in numbers should also be interpreted with caution as several countries are gradually changing their testing strategies, resulting in fewer tests performed and fewer cases detected.
We know that the Omicron variant spreads more easily than earlier variants of the virus that cause Covid-19 and remains the dominant variant circulating around the world. The fact that it appears to be milder than previous variants may have caused a change in the perception of risk by countries and people.
Now is not the time to let our guard down. Protective behaviors remain essential. These include keeping a safe distance from others, avoiding crowds, wearing a properly fitted mask that covers your mask and nose, washing your hands regularly, keeping indoor spaces well ventilated and cover coughs and sneezes.
As long as the virus has the ability to transmit and infect, it also has the ability to mutate and other variants and recombinants are expected to appear. Countries also need to rapidly increase vaccination coverage and strengthen and expand surveillance so that we can track the evolution and spread of the virus and calibrate our measures against the virus.
Are we heading for the fourth wave?
Whether there is an increase in the number of cases or the intensity of such an increase is up to all of us. If we all continue to properly wear masks covering our mouths and noses, keep our hands clean, keep a safe distance, try to avoid poorly ventilated areas and get vaccinated in turn, it will be difficult for the virus to spread and infect more people and cause another wave.
Although we do not know and cannot predict the trajectory of the pandemic. The virus continues to evolve and with such intense transmission around the world, new variants, including recombinants, will appear. We also know that unvaccinated people are at significantly higher risk of serious illness from infection and it is overwhelmingly unvaccinated people who experience serious illness as a result of Omicron. We must stop the spread of the virus, thereby denying it the ability to evolve, transmit and infect. We must do this while scaling up vaccination, especially among the groups most at risk.
Your advice to people on Covid-19?
We can and we must end the pandemic this year. As countries increase vaccination coverage, we all need to work together to reduce the risk, both to ourselves and to others. We have to get vaccinated when it’s our turn. Follow all measures such as keeping a safe distance, wearing a properly fitted mask, washing our hands frequently, and covering our coughs and sneezes while keeping indoor spaces well ventilated.
We are now in the third year of the pandemic and it is understandable that we are all exhausted and want to get back to the life we had before the pandemic. For this to happen, we must stay the course and follow these measures, in order to reduce the number of illnesses, suffering and deaths, and return the world to normal.