Traditional and complementary/alternative medicine is widely used in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of an extensive range of ailments. There are numerous factors that have led to the widespread and increasing appeal of traditional and complementary/alternative medicine throughout the world, particularly in the past 20 years. In some regions, traditional and complementary/alternative medicine is more accessible. In fact, one-third of the world's population and over half of the populations of the poorest parts of Asia and Africa do not have regular access to essential drugs. However, the most commonly reported reasons for using traditional and complementary/alternative medicine are that it is more affordable, more closely corresponds to the patient's ideology, and is less paternalistic than allopathic medicine. Regardless of why an individual uses it, traditional and complementary/alternative medicine provides an important health care service to persons both with and without geographic or financial access to allopathic medicine.
Traditional and complementary/alternative medicine has demonstrated efficacy in areas such as mental health, disease prevention, treatment of non-communicable diseases, and improvement of the quality of life for persons living with chronic diseases as well as for the ageing population. Although further research, clinical trials, and evaluations are needed, traditional and complementary/alternative medicine has shown great potential to meet a broad spectrum of health care needs.
Recognizing the widespread use of traditional and complementary/alternative medicine and the tremendous expansion of international markets for herbal products, it is all the more important to ensure that the health care provided by traditional and complementary/alternative medicine is safe and reliable; that standards for the safety, efficacy, and quality control of herbal products and traditional and complementary/alternative therapies are established and upheld; that practitioners have the qualifications they profess; and that the claims made for products and practices are valid. These issues have become important concerns for both health authorities and the public. National policies are a key part of addressing these concerns.
Each year the World Health Organization receives an increasing number of requests to provide standards, technical guidance, and informational support to Member States elaborating national policies on traditional and complementary/alternative medicine. The World Health Organization encourages and supports Member States to integrate traditional and complementary/alternative medicine into national health care systems and to ensure their rational use. Facilitating the exchange of information between Member States through regional meetings and the publication of documents, the World Health Organization assists countries in sharing and learning from one another's experiences in forming national policies on traditional and complementary/alternative medicine and developing appropriate innovative approaches to integrated health care.
In 1998, the World Health Organization Traditional Medicine Team issued the publication Regulatory situation of Herbal Medicines: A Worldwide Review. Although it only includes information concerning the regulation of herbal medicines, this document attracted the attention of the national health authorities of World Health Organization Member States as well as of the general public.
Legal Status of Traditional Medicine and Complementary/Alternative Medicine: A Worldwide Review is much more comprehensive. Both an update and an expansion of the 1998 document, it includes information on the regulation and registration of herbal medicines as well as of non-medication therapies and traditional and complementary/alternative medical practitioners. It is an easy reference, providing summaries of the policies enacted in different countries and indications of the variety of models of integration adopted by national policy-makers. Through country-specific sections on Background information, Statistics, Regulatory situation, Education and training, and Insurance coverage, it is designed to facilitate the sharing of information between nations as they elaborate policies regulating traditional medicine and complementary/alternative medicine and as they develop integrated national health care systems.