Traditional medicine in the Philippines

Published January 7, 2021, 7:43 AM

by Senator Francis Tolentino


Senator Francis N. Tolentino

Traditional medicine has long been practiced in the Philippines even before the introduction of Western and conventional medicine in the country. Indigenous communities, provinces, and regions have their own unique traditional healing practices. Although techniques vary across localities, one commonality is the use of herbs and plants which are believed to have medicinal effects.

Medicinal plants from the Philippines have since made significant inroads in the global market because of the increasing demand for organic and natural health products especially in developed countries. A report from the Board of Investments shows that exports of medicinal plants and food grew from 13% in 2009 to 111% in 2011. The World Health Organization forecasts that the global health market will be worth $5 trillion by 2050.

Because of the increasing global demand for traditional medicine, its regulation has been gradually integrated into the national policy of many countries. Republic Act No. 8423, the “Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997,” integrates traditional and alternative medicine into our national health care system. Although the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) is the primary government agency tasked with the promotion of traditional and alternative medicine in the country, regulatory powers over traditional medicine products remain vested with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Traditional medicine has especially gained new significance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight with the development of vaccines, the procurement, storage, and distribution of vaccines across and within countries will still take considerable time and resources.

Hence, current research on the efficacy of medicinal plants as an alternative treatment for COVID-19 symptoms remains significant and pressing. In the Philippines, research studies are being conducted on the use of tawa-tawa (Euphorbia hirta) and lagundi (Vitex negundo) as treatment for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms or those without co-morbidities. Further, studies on the effectiveness of virgin coconut oil (VCO) as a potential antiviral agent against COVID-19 are currently underway.

Unfortunately, misinformation on whether certain traditional or alternative medicine products have been properly certified as safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 still abounds. Last August, 2020, reports circulated that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had already approved Lian Hua Qing Wen, a traditional Chinese medicine, as a treatment for COVID-19. The FDA denied that it had approved the product and clarified that it was being used to manage symptoms similar to mild or moderate COVID-19 cases.

Ensuring the safety, efficacy, and quality of traditional drugs and practices is crucial in widespread acceptance of traditional and alternative medicine as a viable method to treat diseases. However, the use, distribution, and practice of traditional medicine still lack stringent and cautious regulation when compared to pharmacological drugs and other conventional treatments. Further, the absence of a centralized database of traditional medicinal products and practices which are available to the public is concerning. Such database is important in documenting indigenous healing practices for future reference and research studies, and for providing the public with accurate and up-to-date information on safe and effective products.

The goal is that in the near future, every person will be armed with adequate information to intelligently choose between conventional and alternative, albeit safe, treatment methods. This is not only empowering on an individual level, but also breathes life into the constitutional policy to protect and promote the right to health.