Manto does about-face on alternative medicine rules

January 17, 2005

By Jo-Anne Smetherham

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang says draft legislation that alternative practitioners believe could cripple complementary medicine is likely to be changed.

This would mean that African traditional medicines, homeopathic remedies, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines and others would not have to go through the rigorous testing that the practitioners believed would sound the death knell for their industry.

Tshabalala-Msimang said in a statement that her department "would like to avoid the pitfall of putting such products in the same regulatory environment as pharmaceutical drugs, whose testing and control is very different".

The statement followed the minister's speech at an international conference on natural products and molecular therapy, held at UCT Medical School last week.

The draft regulations say alternative medicines should be regulated in the same way as patented conventional drugs. If this draft became law, alternative medicines would have to undergo trials designed for Western medicines and a pharmacist would have to oversee their manufacture.

Experts say the producers of complementary medicines cannot afford these expensive, large-scale trials as alternative medicines are not patented.

"It's fantastic news," said Janet Welham, co-chair of the Complementary and Traditional Medicine Stakeholder Committee, which has been in negotiations with the Department of Health and Precious Matsosa, the Medicines Control Council registrar.

"If what the minister is saying comes to pass, it would be of benefit to everyone in South Africa. This news is exactly what our committee has been trying to negotiate for."

At least 80% of South Africans use African, Chinese, Ayurvedic or South American traditional medicines, Welham said. The proportion would be greater if homeopathic and other complementary medicines were included.

Tshabalala-Msimang said the study of indigenous knowledge was "an opportunity to reclaim Africa's scientific and socio-cultural heritage".

She urged the delegates at the conference to expose "the false dichotomy" that had arisen between natural and allopathic medicine.
"This is a division fostered by the need to make money from patented drugs through discrediting the use of natural products," she said.

Her department has ploughed R6 million into testing the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicines that are used as immune boosters by people with HIV/Aids.

The first phase of testing the safety of one of these medicines was completed late last year and the research had shown promising results, Tshabalala-Msimang said.

The government also funds research into the efficacy of many traditional medicines used to treat tuberculosis, malaria, asthma, cancer, diabetes, anxiety, stress and musculoskeletal disorders.