WHO faces backlash as it advocates for traditional medicine
UN body calls for countries to assess how to integrate traditional medicine into their health systems.
The World Health Organization on Thursday called for countries to integrate traditional and complementary medicine into their national health systems, despite significant criticism over its support of practices that some experts see as pseudoscience.
“Traditional medicine has made enormous contributions to human health, and has enormous potential,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit today in India.
The head of the U.N. health body said that traditional medicine was “not a thing of the past,” adding that there was growing demand for it and it was important for preventing and treating non-communicable diseases. “We urge all countries to commit to examining how best to integrate traditional and complementary medicine into their national health systems,” he said.
Complementary and alternative medicines are not routinely reimbursed by health insurers, with a 2020 study finding that in Europe, countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway reimbursed a greater number of these treatments compared to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The summit was held parallel to the ongoing G20 health ministers' meeting, in India, with Spain — which currently holds the Council Presidency — saying that it will “exchange experiences and discuss the contribution of traditional medicine to health and sustainable development.”
As a member-led organization, the countries that are part of the WHO set its agenda and with 170 of the organization's 194 members reporting the use of traditional medicines, as well as WHO countries approving an official strategy for traditional medicines, the organization is obliged to work in this area.
But that hasn’t stopped a barrage of criticism from experts and the public over the WHO’s stance. In a series of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the WHO set out how traditional medicine had been the backbone of some important scientific advances.
One post asked readers which traditional medicines they had used and included a list that featured homeopathy and naturopathy. That post, viewed by 3.5 million people as of August 17, had over 2,000 quotes, with many calling out the organization for promoting “pseudoscience” and in particular, taking issue with the promotion of homeopathy.
“Seriously Seriously, @WHO? Homeopathy is *not* #TraditionalMedicine! It’s quackery that was invented by a German just ~225 years ago," wrote David Gorksi, a surgical oncologist who edits the website Science-based Medicine.
Responding to the feedback on that post, the WHO said that they “agree that this message could have been better articulated.”
“Our work aims to bring evidence and scientific validation around traditional medicine so that millions of people around the world who use complementary and traditional medicine understand whether it’s safe and effective and are better protected,” said the WHO. “When scientifically validated, traditional medicine has the potential to bridge access gaps for millions around the world.”