ASEAN International Congress on Traditional Medicine

Bangkok, Thailand

Your Excellencies Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of ASEAN and Thai Minister of Public Health Wittaya Kaewparadai, Ladies and Gentleman,

I would like to thank all of you for gathering here today. It is with great pleasure that I take part in ASEAN’s very first International Congress on Traditional Medicine. I especially wish to thank the Secretary-General, the ASEAN Secretariat, and the Minister of Public Health of Thailand for making this event possible.

The Nippon Foundation undertakes a broad range of activities in the public interest both at home and abroad. It focuses especially in the areas of social welfare, education, medicine and maritime affairs. In 2008, we entered into a 5-year agreement with the ASEAN Secretariat to support ASEAN projects in five main areas. The five are leprosy elimination, human resources development, support and promotion of the disabled, maritime safety, and of course the promotion of traditional medicine.

Many people in developing countries continue to suffer from illnesses brought on by minor ailments like fevers, colds or diarrhea. These are problems that could be cured easily if they had medicines to treat these early symptoms. I have witnessed such suffering in many regions of the world and have wondered if there isn’t a way to prevent such illnesses in the early stages. For example, would it be possible to permanently supply people with the medicines they need, through sustained programs firmly rooted in each location?

Fifteen years ago, through a revolving drug fund program known as the Bamako Initiative, we supported the provision of essential modern medicines in 12 countries. Unfortunately, that effort ended in failure. There were many reason s for this, but the first was that it used imported modern medicines. These medicines are expensive, and many people were unable to buy them. Further, even when medicines were made available at health centers, many people lived too far away to access them.

Resolving these problems requires two things: low prices and easy access. One solution is to make active use of traditional medicines.

Traditional medicines are much less expensive than modern medicines: usually between one-tenth and one-twentieth the cost. Moreover, traditional medicines generally exist worldwide, making them easy to access. Traditional medicines incorporate human knowledge and experience stretching back through history, and I believe you all know how effective they can be. They also continue to be used by many people around the world. Even in Japan, traditional medicines continue to be used to treat early symptoms such as fever, headache and diarrhea. I myself always rely on traditional Japanese medicine whenever I feel a cold coming on.

In 2004, we recognized the potential of traditional medicines and launched a model project in Mongolia. Many Mongolians live a nomadic life, travelling great distances every year. Because of the difficulties nomads have in accessing doctors and medicines, relatively minor complaints often develop into serious illnesses. Thus, to achieve a better medical environment, we combined Mongolia’s traditional medicines with a unique, Japanese distribution system that has been in use for about 300 years.

In Japan, medicine vendors pay visits directly to people’s homes and leave behind a supply of general medicines in a home medicine kit. The next time they visit, they collect money only for the medicines that have been used since the previous visit, and they replenish the kit as necessary. Under this arrangement, people are always prepared for minor illnesses. This Japanese system has contributed to the maintenance of basic health in Japan for three centuries. Today, it is being applied in Mongolia, where it currently serves 10,000 households.

The medicines being distributed this way are all traditional Mongolian medicines. Their quality is guaranteed by the Mongolian Ministry of Health. Local medical practitioners place basic kits with each family, and later they collect money for the medicines that have been used. According to the reports we have received, the payment rate is close to 100 percent. This suggests that the new system is well trusted and taking firm root. As a result of this project, direct improvements in primary health care are being seen. For example, in one region, the number of house-calls made by doctors has decreased by 45 percent.

This project in Mongolia demonstrates that the use of traditional medicines can be an effective way to resolve the problems of cost and access. I am not suggesting, however, that this method should be implemented in all countries and regions. Every country has its own culture and its own unique national or local characteristics. I believe it is very important that the potential of traditional medicines must be considered and applied flexibly, always respecting the situation of the country concerned. I hope you will all join in and help devise systems best suited to each location.

Initiatives of this kind have already started. For example, The Nippon Foundation is promoting the use of traditional medicines in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. In Myanmar, instead of placing a medicine kit in each home, it was thought more effective to have kits kept by community leaders in each village. Today, kits have been placed with approximately 7,000 village leaders. Meanwhile in Thailand ~ a country where medical care is free ~ a project has been launched to study the feasibility of using of traditional medicines and the medicine-kits system as a way of reducing national medical costs. In Cambodia, we supported the creation of the country’s first national school dedicated to Khmer traditional medicine in order to help systematize knowledge and skills in this field. We are now cooperating in drawing up the school’s curriculum and advising on other aspects of its operation.

We believe that traditional medicine projects can have a positive impact not only in the countries where they are already in place, but in other countries and regions as well. The example of Thailand, for instance, may pave the way to reducing healthcare costs in many countries. The school in Cambodia aims to improve the quality, both of traditional medicines and of the people who administer them. In the future we hope to develop exchanges with traditional medicine experts from nearby nations. The Nippon Foundation has also received requests for cooperation in Laos and elsewhere. We hope to cooperate in making effective use of the traditional medicines of each country, and to be of assistance to whole regions using methods matching each specific situation.

In 2007, The Nippon Foundation and WHO jointly organized a Congress on Traditional Medicine. On that occasion, we introduced the international community to the home medicine kit system set up in Mongolia. In 2008, the “Beijing Declaration” was adopted at the congress held to commemorate the WHO’s 60th anniversary. The declaration called on nations everywhere to promote use of traditional medicine. Around the world, the field of traditional medicine is gradually winning the attention of the international community. Since the initiatives of ASEAN nations have no precedent, they are destined to be of great significance.

ASEAN is a future-oriented network focused on the achievement of prosperity through cooperation among member nations. Through the collective application of information and knowledge accumulated by its members, ASEAN can connect individual action “points” into action “lines” and, eventually, broad-ranging action networks.

The hopes of surrounding countries are also pinned on the activities being undertaken by the ASEAN members. This is illustrated by the participation here today of observers from Sri Lanka and Nepal. I urge you all to engage in constructive discussions, and to dedicate yourselves to the spread and development of traditional medicine both within ASEAN member nations and in surrounding regions as well.

Many people suffer greatly because they have no access to medical care or medicine. Traditional medicine, however, provides a great hope that we will be able to bring the benefits of sustainable primary health care to even the poor and those who live in remote locations. These moves will improve primary health care and will bring benefits that transcend our immediate goals by, for example, resolving problems relating to medical costs and developing integrative medicine.

Tomorrow, time has been set aside for discussing these issues, and on the third day of the Congress, the Thai Health Ministry will host an Herb Expo. I hope you will all make the most of these opportunities to engage in a lively exchange of opinions.