African medical practitioners have been urged to use their intellectual property rights in order to patent and protect traditional medicines and indigenous knowledge. Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang made this call on Monday, at the Africa regional consultative meeting on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property.
"The implementation of continental initiatives with focus on research and development of traditional medicine need to be enhanced," said the health minister.
"It is therefore important to discuss issues relating to the protection of indigenous knowledge systems."
The two-day meeting is part of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) initiative to develop a global strategy and plan of action aimed at enhancing needs-driven, essential health research and development that is relevant to diseases which are disproportionately affect developing countries.
"This consultation is essential to enable Africa to have a common position on this very important global discussion.
"The bulk of disease burden is in developing countries and Africa in particular," the minister said.
The high prices of medicine, she said makes it imperative that Africa takes a common position on issues of fair trade with regard to medicines affecting public health and the consultative meeting will seek to consolidate Africa's position on this matter.
The meeting was attended by representatives of at least 16 African countries and experts from various local and international organisations including the WHO.
In April this year, South Africa established the Medicinal Plant Incubator Project (MPIP) to protect its indigenous plants.
This would be achieved by ensuring those who needed to use them did not pluck the plant species in an uncontrolled manner from the wild.
The indigenous plants would be grown in a nursery environment, well cared for and be sold to traditional healers and others who have a use for them.
Agriculture, Conservation and Environment Khabisi Mosunkutu said that project has, as one of its primary objectives, a duty to ensure the preservation, propagation, recording and informing the public how to manage ethnobotany.
This is a critical task especially considering the local and international pressure arising from competing land use and sheer arrogance from some quarters, in relation to biodiversity.
Ethnobotany is the science which studies how plants are used in various cultures.
According to the MEC, the World Health Organisation estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of the populations of developing countries rely on traditional medicine.
Over 30 000 of South Africa's plant species are said to utilised as medicine and about 350 of these are still commonly used and traded as medicinal plants.
It is estimated that almost 20 000 tons of medicinal plants are used by at least 27 million consumers each year.
"This places considerable strain on the wild populations from which these products are harvested," Mr Mosunkutu said at the time.
He said in Gauteng, numerous species are harvested especially from the province's grasslands which are already under pressure through the demand of land for housing and agriculture.
The success of this project he added would ensure that consumers could have easier access to culturally acceptable and affordable that promotes their physical and spiritual well being.
Other benefits of the project would include access by healers to a regular supply of plants that are important for treating some ailments, thereby promoting their businesses.
A larger range of plants would be available for healers to dispense and for consumers to purchase.