WHO’s two-day Traditional Medicine Global Summit sparks controversy and scepticism

As global leaders and experts convene in Gujarat, there are questions about the credibility underlying the promotion of traditional medicine.

BySumit Jha

Published Aug 18, 2023 | 11:38 AMUpdated Aug 19, 2023 | 8:14 AM

WHO faced backlash on social media when people questioned the organisation's portrayal of traditional medicine as a valid alternative to modern medicine. (Supplied)

The First World Health Organisation (WHO) Traditional Medicine Global Summit, which kicked off on Thursday, 17 August, has triggered a wave of scepticism and criticism within the medical community.

As global leaders and experts converged on Gandhinagar, Gujarat, for the summit, questions abound about the credibility and scientific rigor underlying the promotion of traditional medicine.

“India has a rich history of traditional medicine through Ayurveda, including yoga, which has been shown to be effective in alleviating pain. The Gujarat Declaration, the main outcome of this summit, will focus on integration of traditional medicines in national health systems and help unlock the power of traditional medicine through science,” WHO chief Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said at the inauguration of the two-day summit.

Prior to the summit’s launch, the WHO faced backlash on social media when readers questioned the organisation’s portrayal of traditional medicine as a valid alternative to modern medicine, without acknowledging its potential inefficacy.

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WHO clarification

The WHO later attempted to clarify its stance, defining “traditional medicine” as a broader term encompassing various health systems.

“We heard your concerns and feedback around this post and agree that this message could have been better articulated. The term ‘traditional medicine’ is inclusive of traditional, complementary, and integrative medicine/health and well-being systems.

“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 WHO.

WHO also said that it would seek to validate traditional medicine.

“When scientifically validated, traditional medicine has the potential to bridge access gaps for millions around the world. By access gaps, we mean that too many people still can’t afford or are unable to obtain the health care and tools that can keep them safe. We welcome this feedback and are thankful to our audiences for being engaged on this topic. Health literacy is vital for science, solidarity, and solutions,” said WHO.

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The scepticism

While the WHO maintained that its goal is to validate traditional medicine through scientific means, many experts and healthcare professionals remained sceptical.

The organisation’s emphasis on integrating traditional medicine into national healthcare systems has ignited debates about the prioritisation of evidence-based practices and the potential consequences of endorsing treatments with questionable efficacy.

In a tweet directed at the WHO, Dr Cyriac Abby Philips — popularly know as TheLiverDoc on X, remarked, “Your attempt at clarification is even more problematic than your initial post. Do you even grasp the fundamental concepts of science and pseudoscience? Pseudoscience is a collection of beliefs or practices erroneously thought to be grounded in the scientific method. It’s astonishing how you wholeheartedly embraced every single ‘traditional medicine’ practice in your original post — from Ayurveda and Acupuncture to Unani and Naturopathy — all of which are unequivocally pseudoscientific. These approaches rely on archaic, outdated, unscientific, and at times downright ludicrous principles.”

He went on to assert that the notion of deriving any credible evidence from these implausible complementary and alternative medicine systems defies genuine scientific reasoning.

Dr Philips argued that pseudoscience, by its very nature, contradicts the scientific method, is marked by inconsistent, exaggerated, or unfalsifiable assertions, leans on confirmation bias instead of rigorous attempts at disproof, shirks evaluation by other experts, and lacks systematic practices when formulating hypotheses.

Moreover, he highlighted how these practices often tenaciously cling to flawed principles even after being experimentally debunked (example: all of AYUSH).

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Dr Philips criticised the conflation of drug discovery from traditional practices and natural sources with complementary and alternative medicines, emphasising that they are distinct entities. The former is an indispensable tool of evidence-based medicine, rooted in rigorous scientific approaches.

He concluded by questioning the “health literacy” touted in the last sentence, asserting that the tone of the message signifies the organisation’s political rather than scientific nature. He implored the WHO to cease endorsing pseudoscientific concepts, reiterating the plea for improved standards.

“I’m sorry but this was not a ‘failure to communicate’ situation. It’s a failure to understand the information environment and an underestimation of how bad actors in the health quackery space will repurpose those tweets and use it as a seal of approval to dupe and harm the public,” tweeted Philip Mai, a social media specialist.

‘Need for evidence-based treatment’

Other doctors also suggested that traditional alternative medicine cannot be a substitute for modern medicine.

Oncologist Dr Sachin Marda told South First that cancer treatment can be classified into three stages, the first three of which can be effectively treated through chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In the unfortunate event that a patient is diagnosed with cancer in its fourth and final stage, the goal shifts from cure to prolonging life.

“In such cases, alternative medicine may appear appealing, but the reality is that time becomes a precious commodity,” said Dr Marda.

Choosing alternative medicine can lead to wasted time and missed opportunities for timely intervention.

“We, as oncologists, emphasise the importance of prompt and evidence-based treatment. While alternative medicine has its merits, it lacks the rigorous scientific backing that allopathy boasts. Ayurveda is undoubtedly a scientific discipline, but its incorporation into mainstream medical practice necessitates a more structured educational framework and rigorous scientific validation,” he added.

Furthermore, alternative medicine can complement allopathic treatments, especially in managing side effects. However, this must be under the guidance of a qualified professional, he said.

In this era of abundant information, discernment is vital. Seek knowledge from authoritative sources such as Tata Memorial, Mayo Clinic, or reputable universities. A clinical doctor’s opinion carries weight, but it’s crucial to align it with established treatment protocols, he weighed in.

“While alternative therapies can have value, they must be approached with a conscious and informed mind. Consultation with local experts is pivotal,” said Dr Marda.

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