|Medicinal Plants: An Expanding Role in Development (World Bank, 1996, 32 pages)|
WHO estimates that approximately 80% of the developing world's population meet their primary health care needs through traditional medicine (Bannerman, 1982). Many different systems exist: the Ayurvedic, Unani, and Siddhi in India; the Kampo in Japan, the Jamu in Indonesia; and more.
In China, plant-based medicine is the backbone of the health care for perhaps a billion people; botanicals are used for the primary health care needs of 40% of China's urban patients and over 90% of its rural patients. In the traditional decoctions as well as in the officially decreed medicines, huge quantities of plant materials are used. Indeed, the annual demand has been reported to exceed 700,000 tons (Xiso-Pei-gen, 1991). The economic value is also huge. In 1987, for instance, China's traditional plant remadies were valued at US$571 million, and its country-vide sale of crude plant drugs was put at $1.4 billion (Li Chaojin, 1987).
Box 2: The Mongoose Knows
Before a mongoose attacks a snake, reported the botanist Rumphius in the 1700s, it fortifies it self by eating the leaves of the serpent-root plant. And if a mongoose gets bitten, it seeks out the serpent root, eats the leaves, rolls around three or four times, rests a little as if drugged; then, regaining strength, rushes back to the attack.
Maybe there is nothing to this story from the great naturalist who lived his life in what is now Indonesia, but since 1949 the serpent root's magical powers has certainly excited the world's medical establishment. That year the British Heart Journal reported that the plant is ´'clinically effective for treating high blood pressure." Three years later, Swiss researchers discovered that a chemical in the root, is an antihypertensive and sedative. Called reserpine, it became the world's first tranquilizer, thereby opening up a vast new field of therapy, previously unsuspected.
Reserpine extracted from the roots of various species of Rauvolfia is now known to not only calm the central nervous system but to lower blood-pressure and control heart-beat arrhythmia. Most of it comes from India, where the powdered root has been in use for at least 2000 years, notably for treating mental illness. Not until 1952, when reserpine was isolated from the raw plant extract, did its use in Western medicine begin to take off. Nowadays, the drug is mainly used to control high blood pressure but it is still one of the most effective tranquilizers, and makes the lives of millions of schizophrenics far more bearable.
In the 3 5 years since the serpent root gave the world its first tranquilizer, this wild Asian plant and its botanical relatives in Africa have risen to become of major economic and medical importance. Already by 1961, the consumer market for prescription drugs from serpent-root species exceeded US$100 million in the United States alone. These days, more than 22 million prescriptions for reserpine and 5 million for serpent-root extracts are dispensed annually in the U.S In addition, 2 million prescriptions for combinations of serpent root and other drugs are filled each year.
All this goes to show that the mongoose probably knew what it was
doing. Rumphius's story offered a provocative lead to a breakthrough in
medicine, but it took us 200 years to realize it. And hundreds of other
provocative leads and a lot of healing power remains in plants still to be
explored. Hopefully, people will get to investigate them soon, or it may be too
late; the plants just may not be around anymore
In South Asia the situation is similar. There, some 800 million people (out of a total population of ova one billion) rely on herbal medicines. In India, for instance, traditional health systems run parallel to the modern health-care sector. Officially recognized and fully sanctioned by the government, these traditional systems (such as Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Tibetan) are comparable to the modern one in their degree of organization and research. Indian records estimate that the traditional health sector encompasses 55,000 licensed pharmacies, 13,770 dispensaries, 7,000 licensed manufacturing units, 16,990 hospitals, 98 Ayurvedic colleges, and 400,000 registered practitioners (versus 332,000 registered physicians). India,s traditional health sector actually accounts for an estimated 35 million persondays of employment annually and therefore is an important income generator.