Conservation of Medicinal Plants

Intergrating Traditional Medicines into the Primary Health Centres through 'Arogyamitras', a Health Friend, will improve health care security

India has a rich resource base of medicinal plants, plush with about 8,000 different species. According to the Government of India (GoI), traditional medicines are the sole means of health care for about 65 percent of the population.

This is the basis of the UNDP India and GoI initiative on ‘Conservation of Medicinal Plants for Health and Livelihood Security’ – the need to revitalize local health traditions. The project that began in December 2005 is being implemented in eight states - Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Orissa. The Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), in Bangalore, is the local partner. FRLHT has undertaken several efforts through this initiative to ensure the strengthening of India’s traditional medicine system. The revival was initiated by “building conservation through use”, in the words of the Former Joint Director of FRLHT, Mr. Giridhar Kinhal.

“Traditional medicines are better. I have never taken English medicines. Only if my children repeatedly fall ill do I administer English medicines to them”, says Anjana Devi, a resident of Suganahalli in Tumkur district of Karnataka. Now Anjana Devi does not have to forage for the ingredients of traditional medicines; she can easily avail of the very same formulae at the local government Primary Health Centre (PHC). PHCs usually only administer allopathic medicine. FRLHT is promoting traditional medicines at 22 PHCs in Karnataka. These PHCs are operated through a Public-Private-Partnership between the Government of Karnataka and a local NGO – the Karuna Trust. The 22 PHCs were taken up by the Karuna Trust based on low health indicators.

Promoting traditional medicines

Each of the 22 PHC areas, covering a radius of 3-5 km, and serving up to 30,000 people, was surveyed for common illnesses. From each individual survey, only the most common 3-4 ailments were prioritized for the respective health centres. Following were some of the criteria for the prioritization: illnesses affecting women; maximum of three days for cure and least number of days of wage loss. The traditional formulae for the prioritized ailments were sanctioned by registered Ayurveda (another Indian medicinal system) experts and practitioners. Now doctors at the PHCs have been instructed by FRLHT and the Karuna Trust to offer patients the option of traditional medicine for the selected ailments.

“Promoting traditional medicines through government health centres gives the Indian medicinal heritage a status equal to allopathic medicine,” according to Dr. Venkat Rao of the Karuna Trust. “Usually patients prefer allopathic medicines but they are willing to try traditional medicines because of my recommendation. Once the traditional medicine cures them, they are happy and recommends it to others in the community”, says Dr. Rupa at the Suganahalli PHC.

Rangamma, is a health centre ‘arogyamitra’, which translates to ‘Health Friend’. Arogyamitras have been deployed in each of the PHCs as part of the initiative. They assist the doctor in administering traditional medicines. Ninety per cent of the arogyamitras are women with some experience in traditional medicine. Rangamma’s grandfather was a traditional healer and she has always been interested in the family tradition. Placed in the Suganahalli PHC, she is a strong advocate for traditional medicines: “I not only encourage patients coming to the PHC to use traditional medicine; I also attend self-help group meetings to advocate this medicine. People who didn’t use traditional medicines are opening up to the concept”.

Improved health care security

PHCs under the project also have demo gardens of medicinal plants and nurseries. The arogyamitra tends to both, the garden and the nursery. Residents in the PHC area can request for saplings from the nursery, which are provided free of cost. This promotes home gardens thus strengthening the traditional medicinal system within families; also strengthening the communities’ self-reliance in health care. Finally, to ensure that this system is sustained through the communities and the local governance structures, a knowledge register of the traditional medicines in the area is maintained at the Panchayat (local government administration). Even as communities within the 22 PHC areas have begun accepting traditional medicines more enthusiastically, partners such as FRLHT are also working with the State Governments and Forest Departments in the conservation of medicinal plants. Their efforts are promoting the further revitalization of India’s traditional medicinal heritage. These initiatives, in the long-term, will improve the health care security.

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