Bolivia launches traditional medicines programs

Rick Kearns, Jan 14

LA PAZ, Bolivia – The Bolivian government is promoting traditional indigenous medicine by sponsoring two intercultural pharmacies and by pledging $10 million towards the development of a larger “pharmaceutical enterprise” according to press statements.

Bolivia’s Health Minister Ramiro Tapia announced Dec. 29 the opening of the two pharmacies that will offer “ancestral medicine” prescribed by traditional healers known as kallawayas as well as modern Western drugs ordered by contemporary physicians.

The conference began with a blessing ceremony where kallawayas “prayed for good results to Pachamama (mother earth)” and burned sweet herbs, coca leaves and other items of significance in Andean indigenous cultures.

“The initial launch will take place in La Paz,” said Amilcar Rada, medications director for the Ministry of Health, “but the two first Inter-institutional Intercultural Municipal Pharmacies will operate in the Andean towns of Patacamaya and Orinoca [which is the hometown of President Evo Morales].”

Rada explained that the intercultural pharmacies will offer remedies developed by modern laboratories that are registered with the Health Ministry, and that in the connected health centers there will be modern doctors and kallawayas that will be available for consultation. He noted that the Health Ministry has already registered traditional medicines such as coca leaf syrup, maca (an Andean tuber) powder used as a stimulant, valerian root oil, which is a sedative or calmative used for anxiety, and torunco ointment that is used for treating rheumatism.

Rada also noted that the Ministry is in the process of registering other traditional medicines “by regions and type of products for each illness and in accordance with the peoples’ needs.”
In the week following the press conference about the pharmacies, the Health Ministry also announced that the Bolivian government would invest $10 million into a pharmaceutical enterprise involving the traditional remedies.

The Health Minister, on behalf of the government, signed an agreement with a group of kallawayas and a representative of the Major University of San Andres that will allow researchers to investigate and then formally register natural medicines that are being used in Bolivia already but without any official monitoring or control.

Tapia said the agreement was put together for the purpose of reasserting the value of traditional medicines “as was ordered by the new Constitution.”

He also stated that national surveys indicated that 60 percent of Bolivians turn to natural prescriptions before going to a modern physician.

“What we will be doing is to guarantee access to formally registered medications, that are scientifically proven and lawfully dispensed,” said Igor Pardo, a director at the Health Ministry.

“On top of that the state will recover the initiative in a time when many are complaining that some of these same natural elements are being patented by foreign entities.”

Towards that end, the university’s faculty of pharmaceutical science and biochemistry will develop a germplasm – defined as “the hereditary material of germ cells” – bank and a herbarium where scientists would collect and study a variety of plant specimens to be potentially used by the intercultural medications industry.

Pardo also noted that upon winning the election in 2006, Morales has directed the Health Ministry to develop programs connecting Western medicine with indigenous practices. Since the onset of this policy, modern doctors in Bolivia have often turned to kallawayas to accompany them on journeys to remote Andean regions to assist in delivering babies; and it is in those areas that people traditionally have more trust in natural healers.

That same mandate led Morales to institute a Vice Ministry of Traditional and Intercultural Medicine that was charged with “promoting, protecting and looking after the preservation and strengthening of traditional medicines, in accordance with the knowledge and wisdom of the indigenous cultures,” according to Bolivia’s Health Ministry Web site.

The official site also lists policy objectives such as “strengthening traditional medicine through investigations into the factors involved with treatment of illnesses from the perspective of rural peoples, and to protect traditional medical knowledge through legislation that would recognize intellectual property rights of those healers.”

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