16 October 2007
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has urged traditional medical practitioners to use intellectual property rights to protect traditional medicines and indigenous knowledge, while also encouraging an increase in research and development of such medicines.
She was speaking last week at the Africa regional meeting on public health, innovation and intellectual property, which formed part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) initiative to develop a global strategy to enhance needs-driven, essential health research and development that is relevant to diseases that are disproportionately affecting developing countries.
“The implementation of continental initiatives with focus on research and development of traditional medicine need to be enhanced,” she said. “It is therefore important to discuss issues relating to the protection of indigenous knowledge systems.”
Tshabalala-Msimang told the audience, comprising representatives of 16 African countries and experts from various local and international organisations including the WHO, the it was vital for the continent to develop a common position on the matter since “the bulk of disease burden is in developing countries and Africa in particular”.
The WHO estimates that between 70% and 80% of the populations of developing countries rely on traditional medicine.
South Africa established the Medicinal Plant Incubator project in its Gauteng province in April this year, to protect its indigenous plants by ensuring that the they are grown in a nursery environment and sold on to traditional healers and not merely plucked from the wild in an uncontrolled manner.
At that launch, Gauteng’s provincial agriculture minister Khabisi Mosunkutu said the project would ensure preservation, propagation and recording of various plant species, as well as informing the public about ethnobotany – the science that studies how plants are used in various cultures.
This was a critical task considering local and international pressure arising from competing land use and sheer arrogance from some quarters, in relation to biodiversity, especially in the rapidly urbanising province.
Mosunkutu at the time said that over 30 000 of South Africa’s plant species are said to utilised as medicine and about 350 of these are still commonly used and traded as medicinal plants. It is estimated that almost 20 000 tons of medicinal plants are used by at least 27-million consumers each year.
“This places considerable strain on the wild populations from which these products are harvested,” he said.