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India’s Brand New Healthcare Cure: Age-Old Medicine

With the price of western medicine proving too costly for large swathes of India’s population, traditional medicine is being billed as the new financial and medical cure-all.

Herbal medicine vendor
Herbal medicine vendor
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI - Still woefully behind in matters of public healthcare for its people, India has a surprising new policy for playing catch-up in the country's rural areas: its own traditional medicine. Last month, the first nationally recognized Indian medicine research center, The Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, was inaugurated in Bangalore.

"Our country cannot blindly follow the western model of five star healthcare," Sam Pitroda -- adviser to the prime minister and director of the National Innovation Council, declared after the inauguration. "We have to go back to our roots and develop an economically viable, sustainable model of healthcare that includes our own traditional treatments."

As a result, the country has begun to rediscover the benefits of its own traditional forms of medicine. After having opted exclusively for the western model of allopathic medicine, as well as having developed a large generic drugs industry, India now finds itself in a paradoxical situation: as it fills its cities with luxury hospitals catering primarily for "medical tourists' from abroad, doctors are deserting the countryside and their local communities.

Spending no more than 1.1% of its state budget on healthcare –- one of the lowest percentages in the world -- the government leaves the majority of its citizens to cover their medical costs themselves. Since only 10% of Indians have health insurance, the result is that there are serious inequalities in heath service access among the different sections of the population.

For India's poorest, child mortality stands at 8% for those under five years of age, as opposed to 3% for its wealthier citizens. In the state of Kerala in southern India, which enjoys one of the country's highest levels of literacy, life expectancy is currently 74 years. But in India's huge central state, Madhya Pradesh, life expectancy drops to just 56 years.

6500 plant varieties

Traditional medicine is seen as a way of closing this gap, by offering less expensive treatments that everyone can have access to. Why bother, supporters of this trend say, spending money on pills when villages can have their own Ayurvedic gardens, and when the necessary know-how in terms of traditional medicine is readily available on-site?

But traditional herbal medicine is not practiced only in the countryside: its appeal has extended to most of the big cities. The recent discovery in India of multi-drug resistant bacteria (strains carrying the antibiotic resistant NDM-1 gene) has also contributed to reviving people's interest in herbal remedies. Advocates of traditional cures say herbal medicine can help stem the excessive and inappropriate use of antibiotics, which drives the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

"In urgent cases, or for certain illnesses, allopathic medicine is still the most appropriate method of treatment. But for preventive care, or for certain mental disorders, we think traditional approaches like yoga is what people need," explains Darshan Shankar, president of the Ayurveda Institute. All signs today point to India moving towards a system of ‘integrative medicine," which combines allopathic treatments with traditional cures. "We are witnessing a paradoxical situation: while Indian patients are showing a lot of interest for traditional medicines, our health system is incapable of meeting their expectations in any substantial way, whether in terms of research or training," Shankar says.

In 2003, the Indian Ministry of Health opened its very own department devoted to the development of traditional medicines, like yoga or Avuryeda. Its mission is to train practitioners, fund research and monitor the quality of treatments provided in the field. The government also wants to prevent foreign pharmaceutical companies from patenting traditional herbal Indian remedies, which currently use more than 6500 plant varieties, as well as minerals and animal products, like the glandular secretions of the musk deer.

The government has already registered around 100,000 pharmacological reference books. "We want to be the ones promoting the Indian system of medicine, introducing it to the world," explains Rajinde Sood from the Indian Health Ministry.

According to statistics, there were 3,371 clinics capable of providing traditional treatments and some 750,000 doctors registered in the field in 2008. But some of these doctors lack formal training in traditional medicine. The Public Accounts Committee severely criticized the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM) last March, after discovering that some rural health centers – a number of which are traditional medicine clinics – were being used as grain stores, cattle sheds or ignored the most basic rules of hygiene.

Photo - Prince Roy

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