The WHO is no stranger to making unfounded conclusions regarding so-called alternative medicine, an essentially meaningless marketing term that is highly politicized and unfairly allows a large number of modalities utterly lacking in legitimate scientific support to ride the coattails of a few high-profile but equally unfounded therapies. In a May 2003 for instance, the WHO claimed that,
"Acupuncture has been proven effective in relieving postoperative pain, nausea during pregnancy, nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy, and dental pain with extremely low side effects. It can also alleviate anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia."This is true only if the lack of plausibility and the totality of the medical literature on acupuncture is ignored, and only cherry-picked poorly conceived, or small and unconvincing, studies are used to support such claims. The information on traditional medicine provided by the WHO is full of equally unfounded and misleading statements.
A Reuters report on the aforementioned conference reveals just how uncritically the WHO is approaching the subject of traditional medicine. According to the article, the conference, which was attended by representatives from 70+ countries, was an opportunity for brainstorming on how to achieve a wider distribution of traditional medical systems, and how to better combine them with conventional medicine so that both systems benefit. This is, of course, pure and total hogwash. Alternative medical modalities add nothing to conventional medicine.
One WHO official is quoted as saying that"Integration of traditional medicine into national health systems will not only bring benefits to patients, but will also ensure safety and proper use." This sounds reasonable but never pans out. Putting the weight of the WHO behind treatments that are not based on good science, and which often call for the bending of fundamental laws of reality, benefits nobody but those who sell such treatments. And one need look no further than the efforts of the NCCAM to realize that calls for increased research in order to determing what is safe and what works is an expensive waste of time. Proponents of alternative medicine don't care about research unless it supports their belief system.
The author writes that WHO director-general Margaret Chan called traditional medicine "a valuable source of leads for therapeutic advances and the discovery of new classes of drugs." It's true that modern medicine owes much to substances derived from the natural world, but this is a classic bait and switch. The fact that some ingested plants have measurable effects on human physiology that can be harnassed for our benefit in no way supports the silly pre-scientific notions behind most of these traditional systems of healing. There are already rational scientists looking into natural medicines and we don't need the wholesale acceptance of a seemingly unbounded entity such as alternative medicine to encourage more to enter the field.
The article further reveals that,
"Traditional medicine is used throughout China and in other developing countries, even with access to Western-style health care growing. Leech therapy is used in parts of India to treat pain and skin diseases, and hospitals in China often offer both Western treatment and traditional cures like acupuncture or herbal antidotes."This is merely the WHO applying the illogical argument that popularity serves as valid proof of efficacy. It doesn't or else we would still be bleeding folks to relieve their excess blood or purging impurities from our patient's bodies with oral mercurous chloride. But pandering to the masses is the name of the game these days, as evidenced by the growing number of alternative medicine departments in academic medical centers across the United States.
The WHO isn't all bad, not by a long shot. They provide a valuable service and add much to international efforts to end suffering and save lives. But they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to rationally evaluating the place of alternative medicine in global healthcare. The position they are taking runs the risk of adding suffering to the world but emphasizing therapies that have failed to meet the standards of science-based medicine in a number of areas by placing far too much importance on popularity and anecdotal evidence.