The government recognises the important role of traditional medicine in improving access to health care. The recognition has been demonstrated through the establishment of a legislative and policy framework aimed at promoting and regulating the practice.
But traditional medicine still remains generally marginalised and implementing the policies is challenged by the limited documentation of traditional medicine and its knowledge and the inherent challenges of protection of intellectual property.
This has delayed full integration of traditional medicine into the national healthcare system. Integration requires concerted effort to generate relevant evidence for:
• Development and implementation of national traditional medicine policies and integrative programmes;
• Promoting the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine;
• Expanding the knowledge base, and providing guidance on regulatory and quality assurance standards;
• Increasing the availability and affordability of traditional medicine, with an emphasis on access for poor and hard-to-reach populations; and
• Promoting the rational use of appropriate traditional medicine by practitioners and consumers.
As part of the national efforts by the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation to strengthen indigenous knowledge systems and related research, the University of KwaZulu-Natal was awarded the NRF’s South African Research Chairs grant for indigenous healthcare systems in 2007 (Phase 1) and 2015 (Phase 2).
The long-term vision of the programme is to contribute to restoration of the dignity and institutionalisation of African traditional medicine through excellence in research.
The UKZN traditional medicine laboratory aims to become a centre of excellence and choice for traditional health practitioners, indigenous knowledge holders and scientists for health systems, preclinical and clinical research of African traditional medicine by developing a critical mass of researchers and improving the relevant research infrastructure and equipment.
The implementation strategies include:
• Improving engagement and trust between traditional healers and researchers through: research into factors influencing engagement, strengthening existing engagement and assisting traditional healers with training and documentation.
• Conducting health systems research to better understand traditional health practice and strategies for full integration into national health care systems.
• Evaluation of safety, efficacy, mechanisms of action and quality of traditional medicines: gathering ethnomedical evidence on safety and efficacy in real-time practice, pre-clinical and clinical studies to establish biological activity and safety in vitro and in vivo and phytochemical studies and quality assurance. The findings should be used to improve the treatments and practice of the traditional healthcare as well as leads for further development of traditional medicines.
• Strengthening infrastructure and capacity for traditional medicines research by: improving laboratory infrastructure, equipment to support preclinical and clinical evaluation and postgraduate training and undergraduate research training.
• Mainstreaming traditional medicine into undergraduate curriculum for health professions training.
The programme will be underpinned by transdisciplinary research that bridges health social science and health systems research, biomedical and clinical research; meaningful involvement of traditional health practitioners, patients and other key stakeholders in the research. UKZN will continue to mobilise additional resources and support to ensure sustainability of this important initiative.
Professor Exnevia Gomo is the South African research chair in indigenous healthcare systems research at the School of Nursing and Public Health, University of KwaZulu-Natal