Opportunities and limitations of traditional healing practices

Careful training is essential for enabling traditional healers to correctly identify and use the right medicinal plants.


  • PROMETRA Uganda established a traditional medicine school in the Buyiija forest. By doing so, it signalled its encouragement for preserving the valuable forests as a refuge for medicinal plants and against the progressive deforestation of the forest’s chestnut trees.
  • Medical botany enjoys a very high status in the education and training of traditional healers. They know hundreds of different plants, how to process them into medicine and how the medicine should be used.

By Barbara Frei Haller, Biovision

In many regions of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, a local traditional healer or village midwife is the first resource for sick people. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO), about three quarters of the world’s population first seek treatment from alternative medicine practitioners and their affordable herbal medicines in the immediate vicinity. Only when severe complications arise do many people travel the long distances to the city to see doctors trained in Western medicine who prescribe pharmaceuticals. The basic care of many countries is thus provided by a network of traditional healers who have refined and passed on their empirical knowledge of medically effective plant preparations over generations.

Not all herbal medicines are safe

If the wrong herbal medicine is used for a long period of time, for example, unapparent kidney or liver damage can lead to complications. Local health authorities in industrialized countries are responsible for monitoring medicine quality and detecting harmful side effects. Active substances and plants are listed in official pharmacopoeias together with detailed descriptions and determining characteristics, as well as tests for quality control. The health authorities of poor countries, however, lack the capacity to monitor the many indigenous medicinal plants. The database of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (UK) contains 28,187 plant species widely used in traditional medicine worldwide. However, only 4478 of these species are listed in authorized pharmacopoeias. Does that mean that the great wealth of knowledge of traditional medicine is not up-to-date? And what dangerous medicines are being used unwittingly?

Healing through nature

54 per cent of all newly approved therapeutics in the last forty years have been based on natural substances. Many of today’s vital medicines for treating deadly diseases have been copied from preparations by traditional healers. For example, the Chinese Artemisia plant supplies the active ingredient artemisinin, and the bark of the South American Chinchona tree supplies quinine. These two substances form the basis of drugs that treat 214 million cases of malaria Opportunities and limitations of traditional healing practices annually. Even in treating diabetes, a disease that likely affects around 422 million adults worldwide, the design of the anti-diabetic metformin is based on the structure of a natural plant ingredient.

Medicinal plants and their habitats in distress

Globally, the demand for purely plant-based medicines is increasing. This demand is increasingly threatening many medicinal plant species. According to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), 1280 medicinal plants have already been placed under protection. Supply bottlenecks lead to the collection of similar-looking plants, which in the worst case could be poisonous. Crucial for safely treating the sick are sustainable wild collection, the cultivation of medicinal plants and the clear identification of plant species.
Many of these aspects also apply at a small scale to the traditional healers of PROMETRA in Uganda (see pages 2 and 3). In their first year of training, students learn in detail about the medicinal effects and application of more than 100 plants. In this way, each learner compiles their own pharmacopoeia. The school has its own nurseries with medicinal plants and gives seedlings to the healers for their gardens. This helps protect and preserve natural resources and increase the availability of medicinal plants. 

Thorough training for traditional healers

After passing an examination, the second year of training focuses on correctly producing and administering drugs. Quality control is a top priority. Results from the second exam entail either repetition of the second year or promotion to the third year, which focuses primarily on case studies. This allows intensive information exchange about the efficacy and side effects of drugs. The limits of naturopathic practices are also clarified. The prospective traditional healers are repeatedly made aware of the point in time at which they must refer their patients to a doctor in the state healthcare system.