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Traditional healing

Key reading

1.      Chapter Four: Caring and curing: The sectors of health care. Especially pages 51-66 and 71-74. (Helman, 2000).

2.      WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy. Full text available at

Further reading

Traditional healing

Anthropology and traditional healing


See Kleinman and Gale’s study (Kleinman & Gale, 1982), comparing the outcomes of patients treated by shamans in Taipei, Taiwan, with those of roughly matched patients treated by physicians. At a month follow-up, more than 75% in both groups across five distinctive sickness types perceived their health problems as improved and were so evaluated by the research staff. A higher proportion of subjects were dissatisfied with shamanistic treatment than with biomedical care. The findings are interpreted with respect to serious limitations on research design and methods in studies of indigenous healing. These limitations call into illustrate why assessments of therapeutic outcome, besides reflecting biological constraints, should be recognized as differential cultural construals of socially constructed reality.

See a comparison of allopathy with Chinese medicine, curanderismo, and a Native American healing system (Krippner, 1995).

 See a book by Linda Connor and Geoffrey Samuel (Connor et al., 2000), on healing powers and modernity iin South and Southeast Asia.See Kirmayer (1993) on the effectiveness of symbolic healing and psychotherapy, based on the three concepts of myth (narrative structures of the self produced and lent authority by cultural tradition), archetype (preformed ideas or images, but for the bodily-given in meaning), and metaphor (linking narrative and bodily-given experience).o

See ethnopsychoanalytic perspectives of traditional healers, for example, in the Philippines (Day & Davidson, 1976). Presents a theoretical extension of the authors' (1974) monograph ( Symbol and Realization: A Contribution to the Study of Magic and Healing)  which emerged from their field research with a female Filipino faith healer. Topics discussed include significant events in the healer's life; her approach to healing, diagnosing, and explaining disease; magic and meaning; the shamanistic parallel; and problems of aggression and defense (Abstract).


For an account of traditional medicine and shamanism in Asian societies, read Connor and Samuel (2001).

See a study of shamanism and folk-healing traditions in Southeast Asia (Heinze, 1984). Shamans heal on the spiritual level but do not use herbs, message, or other prescriptions. Healers act morally and refuse to touch some cases. Includes the different states of consciousness (e.g., mind expansions, dissociation, and states that involve lack of control and gain of control) encountered in shamans, mediums, and healers

See articles about shamanism and altered states of consciousness. According to Richard Noll (1989), The anthropological literature on shamanism appears to be organized in terms of oppositional pairs of prescriptions inherited from psychology. These pairs include conscious mentalism-unconscious mentalism, contentual objectivism-contentual subjectivism, environmentalism-nativism, monopsychism-polypsychism, mechanism-vitalism, and quantitativism-qualitativism. While scholars of shamanism will align themselves along prescriptive lines that coincide with their own personal biases, they will no doubt continue to search for new avenues of reconciliation for these oppositional prescriptive pairs (Abstract). See Vieda Skultans (1986) questioning the emphasis that Noll places on the central role of visual imagery in healing.

Healing ritual               

See Laderman (1995) on the performance of healing. For a description of the performance of healing through music, movement and dialogue, choose chapters from Laderman and Rosenman (1996).

For a detailed example of ritual and healing, showing the symbolic meaning of yantra and mantra, read Eisenbruch (1992).

See various articles by Kapferer (1980; 1979; 1988; 1994; 1997; 1990)


For a definitive text on sorcery and healing, read chapters from Kapferer (1983).

Taxonomies of illness

For the value of the traditional healer as a narrator of local taxonomies and meanings of childhood illnesses, see Eisenbruch (Eisenbruch, 1998b). See Lemoine and Eisenbruch (1997) for a comparison with shamanic healers.

Healers and health issues

See a study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief and bereavement of an Ethiopian immigrant woman whose baby died during the exodus and who, because of the different environmental conditions in 'the new land', could not undergo traditional purification rituals. Subsequently she suffered various cultural signs and symptoms of PTSD due to complicated bereavement and, on top of that, was seen as 'impure' by both her family and herself (Schreiber, 1995).

For the place of the traditional healer in a community mental health program, see Somasundaram et al., (Somasundaram et al., 1999). The efficacy of introducing low-cost, basic mental health care is shown, and related to the need to find solutions for prevailing problems on the psychosocial level. They can be introduced with modest means, and can be complementary to local health beliefs and traditional healing. In introducing mental health services, an approach is needed which adapts to the absorption potential of the health system as well as to the patients' need to find meaningful help. Existing resources, from the traditional healing sector to rudimentary village structures, cannot be neglected in the rehabilitation of the community, or in interventions to help the individual patient (from Abstract).

For the traditional healer as narrator of the popular views of maternal-foetal transmission of HIV, see Eisenbruch (Eisenbruch, 2000b).

For the traditional healer’s experience of popular views of perinatal disorders, see Eisenbruch (Eisenbruch, 2000a).

Indigenous health

Various organisations promote the study and maintenance of Indigenous healing in resource-poor countries. See Department of Pharmacognosy, Trinity College, Dublin at

Global Initiative For Traditional Systems (GIFTS) of Health, an international health policy collaborative,

CIEER for international network of ethnobotanical researchers. Aim to educate the public concerning the use of plants for healing by traditional cultures and to promote the safe and effective use of medicinal plants. Objectives to preserve traditional cultures and biodiversity and disseminate accurate scientific information concerning ethnomedicinal research via Global Ethnomedicinal Information Retrieval System (GEIRS). Available at


For a PowerPoint definition, see

See Indigenous patterns of conserving biodiversity: pharmacologic implications (Etkin, 1998). The accelerating rate at which the world's botanical resources are being depleted today has inspired redoubled efforts on the part of global conservation programs. For the most part, this reflects the actions of outsiders who are culturally and politically detached from the threatened environments, and who identify species for conservation through western economic models. In view of this, ethnopharmacologists--and primarily those representing the social sciences--have drawn attention to the cogency of indigenous knowledge of biotic diversity and its conservation. This paper reviews how local paradigms of plant management promote conservation, and problematizes the issue specifically to the use of plants by Hausa peoples in northern Nigeria. The pharmacologic implications of indigenous patterns of plant use and conservation derive from the manifold and overlapping contexts in which plants, especially wild species, are used by local communities. These applications identify the importance of particular species and should be employed in assigning priority for the conservation of plants (Abstract).

International Society for Ethnopharmacology, at; European Society of Ethnopharmacology, at; French Society of Ethnopharmacology, at

For a Francophone perspective, see Groupe de Recherche Ethnomédecine/Anthropologie de la santé, University of Strassbourg.


For an example, see International Centre for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (InterCEDD), Nsukka, Nigeria, which conducts an integrated research program for drug development, and commercialization of potentially useful natural products. It  provides a full service Phytomedicine research facility, that standardizes traditional remedies with demonstrated safety and efficacy profiles. Available at

Confucian and Tao healing systems

See two books by Charles Leslie for a classic overview of Chinese and Indian medicine (Leslie, 1976; Leslie & Young, 1992). See Lagerwey (1987) for an overview on Taoism.

See Elizabeth Hsu (2000) on the transformation of Chinese medicine. Studies on the terminology of expert knowledge tend to neglect the relevance of sociological data, in spite of general acceptance that knowledge and social practice are interdependent. This paper explores expert knowledge and practice by examining 'styles of knowing' and how they differ according to the ways in which experts establish their authority. For assessing medical authority in microsocial settings, the author takes recourse to Weber's three ideal types. The study shows that for a charismatic healer who seeks to reach mutual consensus with his clientele vagueness in terminology can be useful. When, however, medical authority depends on recognition by superiors and peers in modern bureaucratic institutions, vague terms tend to be avoided. So, the same term that a charismatic healer may refer to in a vague sense becomes more explicitly defined in the bureaucratic setting. Its sense is more clearly delimited and denotational qualities are emphasized. In institutions where traditional authority prevails, like those of the literate elite in highly stratified traditional societies, the technical terminology is not only vague, but notoriously polysemous. The article draws on ethnographic data of Chinese medicine and qigong therapy as practised in the late eighties in Kunming city, the capital of Yunnan province in the People's Republic of China, but it is meant to contribute in a more general way to an exploration of the ways in which claims to medical authority interrelate with word meaning, language use, and 'styles of knowing'. The term investigated, shen, refers to the spiritual, a domain of human experience that is widely acknowledged by traditional medical practitioners, but difficult to evaluate by sociological analysis (Abstract).

Traditional Islamic medicine

See Islamic Medicine On-Line. Medicine of Prophet, at . Also, Karolinska Institute site on Classical Islamic Biomedicine, at

Iranian Traditional Medicine, at

Ayurvedic medicine

See two books by Charles Leslie for a classic overview of Chinese and Indian medicine (Leslie, 1976; Leslie & Young, 1992).

Traditional healing and children             

For an example of traditional healing for children in Zimbabwe, read Reynolds (Reynolds, 1996).

See, also, cultural construction of various childhood illnesses, for example, popular culture and mothers’ knowledge of Acute Respiratory Illness (ARI) in the Philippines (Nichter & Nichter, 1994). An ethnographic study explored 70 mothers' recognition of and experience with acute respiratory infection (ARI) in the Philippines, using a variety of research methods. Open-ended and structured interviews contributed to the understanding of (1) the prototypical ideas about ARIs and the cultural meaning of symptoms, (2) the documentation of illness categories, and (3) the construction of illness taxonomies and cultural models of illness transformation. Focus group discussions structured around video presentations illustrating the sight and sound of children with ARIs and clinic-based interviews helped to identify which signs and symptoms Ss recognized when a child was ill with an ARI, ambiguity in the language used to describe these illness attributes, and the extent to which these attributes were differentiated. Differences between cognitive and embodied knowledge were also documented (Abstract reproduced).

Complementary and Alternative Medicines
The Australian context

NSW Department of Health discussion paper on Regulation of Complementary Health Practitioners. Available for download at  

For articles on Traditional Chinese Medicine in Australia, choose from Bensoussan and Myers (1999) on some scientific and ethical issues

See Bensoussan (2000) on establishing the evidence base. There are a large number of systematic reviews on complementary and alternative practices and many hundreds more randomised, controlled trials which form a growing body of original research. However, given the extensive nature of the discipline, and the difficulty in performing rigorous trials, appropriate clinical trial evidence is still required for many of these interventions. On the other hand, consumers are using these medicines and seem unlikely to rely on positive clinical trials to be convinced of the potential effectiveness and relative safety of a medicine with a long tradition (Abstract).

See an Australian study of risks associated with traditional Chinese medicine (Bensoussan, Myers, & Carlton, 2000). OBJECTIVE: To investigate the nature and frequency of adverse events that occur as a result of the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine) in Australia. METHODS: Data on adverse events were obtained as part of a comprehensive survey of all occupational health groups, government-registered and unregistered, who practiced traditional Chinese medicine or 1 of its main modalities. RESULTS: Practitioners reported numerous adverse events arising from the application of acupuncture (including fainting, nausea and vomiting, and increased pain), or the consumption of Chinese herbal medicines (including direct toxic effects and allergic reactions). Practitioners experienced an average of 1 adverse event every 8 to 9 months of full-time practice or 1 adverse event for every 633 consultations. The mean adverse event rate of nonmedical practitioners was less than half the mean adverse event rate of medical practitioners. CONCLUSIONS: The practices of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are not risk-free and fatalities have occurred. Variation in adverse event rates between medical and nonmedical practitioners may reflect differences in relevant education or different reporting behaviors. These data represent the first step in the evaluation of adverse event rates in traditional Chinese medicine (Abstract).

Report (NSW Clinical Pharmacologists and Pharmacists) by NSW Therapeutic Assessment Group: Complementary medicines in public hospitals, available for download at


Definitions of TRM, CAM, herbal medicines, therapeutic activity and active ingredients, at

The use of traditional medicine in primary health care (World Health Organization & Regional Office for South-East Asia, 1990); medicinal plants (World Health Organization, 1999); intellectual property rights in the context of traditional medicine (World Health Organization, 2001b); the legal status of traditional and complementary medicine (World Health Organization, 2001a).

Planning for cost- effective traditional health services in the new century. WHO Centre for Health Development, Kobe. Full text available at

Regional programs in traditional medicine, for example,

Globalisation And Traditional Medicine: Challenges And Opportunities:  WHO's Perspective, Taegu, Republic Of Korea, 25 November 2002, By Dr Chen Ken. Available for download at

WHO Collaborating Centres on Traditional Medicine 
The globalization and new technology of traditional healing

The internet offers new horizons for traditional healers, advertising cures for AIDS or cancer. See, for example,


4th International Conference & Exhibition on Traditional Medicine under the theme: Traditional Healing and HIV/AIDS. See

Traditional medicines and HIV in Traditional Medicine & HIV/AIDS in Africa. Report from the International Conference on Medicinal Plants, Traditional Medicine and Local Communities in Africa, at

Cambodian traditional healers and their patients about ‘crouching mango’ as syphilis and AIDS, and the implications for maternal-child vertical transmission, (Eisenbruch, 1998a; Eisenbruch, 1997; Eisenbruch, 2000b).


See a useful compendium of CAMp, at

See a useful commentary on magical thinking in homeopathy and other forms of CAM, at


See ‘A primer of complementary and alternative medicine commonly used by cancer patients’ (Edzard Ernst). Systematic review indicated a prevalence of 34%, close to that observed for Australia, but markedly lower than the 75% reported in the United States. Cancer patients rarely inform their doctors about their CAM use. This paper introduces acupuncture, alternative cancer diets, aromatherapy, chiropractic, coffee enemas, herbal medicinal products (HMPs), homoeopathy, meditation, ozone therapy, shark cartilage, and spiritual healing. Available at

Heart disease

A study cautions patients about to undergo cardiac surgery about the risk for potential adverse reactions from the use of CAM. 44 percent used CAM yet, of that number, only 17 percent said that they had discussed the use of CAM with their physicians, and 48 percent said that they did not want to discuss the topic at all. Garlic and onion inhibit platelet aggregation. Feverfew, ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10, ginger, ginseng, and St. Johnswort interact with warfarin. Hawthorn berry, kyushin, licorice, plantain, uzara root, ginseng, and St. Johns wort interact with digoxin. Fish oils affect platelet aggregation and vitamin E affects platelet function. Summary available at  

Ethnic/cultural differences in the use of CAM


In a study of medical students of Indian descent, strong ethnic identity and acculturation related to high self-esteem, self-clarity, the likelihood of treating more minority patients, and the use of CAM (Gurung & Mehta, 2001).

Childhood ailments

There has often been a distinction between CAM used by the general population and those used by members of ethnic minority groups and commonly referred to as folk medicine or ethnomedicine. Pachter et al. (1998) describe the home-based therapies that mothers from European American, African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian-Caribbean heritages use to treat the common cold in their children.. Mean number of home-based remedies for the common cold did not differ among ethnic groups (controlling for maternal age, maternal education, number of children, and health insurance status). There were differences among groups regarding the frequency of use of specific remedies, but generally similar amounts of homebased interventions are used when compared with mothers from the majority culture (Pachter et al., 1998).

Chronic illness

See differences in knowledge and the care of chronic illness, including the use of CAM, reported between African-Americans, Latinos, and Filipino-Americans (Becker et al., 1998).

In a study of rural patients with arthritis, European-Americans made greater use of conventional remedies and African-Americans of some alternative remedies (Arcury et al., 1996).


See ethnic difference between white and Chinese women in the use of CAM for the treatment of menopausal symptoms. Baseline CAM use, rather than the presence of symptoms, predicted subsequent CAM use (Bair et al., 2002).


In a comparison of patients with cancer in Hawaii, CAM use was highest among Filipino and Caucasian patients, intermediate for Native Hawaiians and Chinese, and significantly lower among Japanese. Some ethnic preferences for CAM followed ethnic folk medicine traditions, e.g., herbal medicines by Chinese, Hawaiian healing by Native Hawaiians, and religious healing or prayer by Filipinos. CAM users reported lower emotional functioning scores, higher symptom scores, and more financial difficulties than nonusers (Maskarinec et al., 2000).

A sample of black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white patients with early-stage breast cancer (diagnosed within the preceding year) reported their use of CAM. More black than Hispanic or non-Hispanic white patients used herbal therapies and spiritual healing (Alferi et al., 2001).

Differences in the use of CAM among men of four ethnic populations in the US affected by prostate cancer (Lee et al., 2002).

CAM in relation to non-Western medicine

We tend to think of complementary medicine in relation to Western allopathic medicine, but other mainsteam systems (such as Unani medicine) also have a history and context of complementary medicine. See, for example, a review of cultural and historical aspects of ‘Old Word’  medicine and ancient Arab-Islamic medicine (Oumeish, 1998).

See BBC Complementary Medicine topics, on Ayurvedic Medicine, at


  • Alferi, S. M., Antoni, M. H., Ironson, G., Kilbourn, K. M., & Carver, C. S. 2001, "Factors predicting the use of complementary therapies in a multi-ethnic sample of early-stage breast cancer patients", Journal of the American Medical Womens Association., vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 120-123.

  • Arcury, T. A., Bernard, S. L., Jordan, J. M., & Cook, H. L. 1996, "Gender and ethnic differences in alternative and conventional arthritis remedy use among community-dwelling rural adults with arthritis", Arthritis Care & Research., vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 384-390.

  • Bair, Y. A., Gold, E. B., Greendale, G. A., Sternfeld, B., Adler, S. R., Azari, R., & Harkey, M. 2002, "Ethnic differences in use of complementary and alternative medicine at midlife: longitudinal results from SWAN participants", American Journal of Public Health., vol. 92, no. 11, pp. 1832-1840.

  • Becker, G., Beyene, Y., Newsom, E. M., & Rodgers, D. V. 1998, "Knowledge and care of chronic illness in three ethnic minority groups", Family Medicine., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 173-178.

  • Bensoussan, A. 2000, "Complementary medicine. Searching for the evidence", Australian Family Physician, vol. 29, no. 12, pp. 1129-1133.

  • Bensoussan, A. & Myers, S. P. 1999, "Use of complementary medicines: scientific and ethical issues. [letter; comment.]", Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 170, no. 2, pp. 94-96.

  • Bensoussan, A., Myers, S. P., & Carlton, A. L. 2000, "Risks associated with the practice of traditional Chinese medicine: an Australian study", Archives of Family Medicine, vol. 9, no. 10, pp. 1071-1078.

  • Connor, L. H. & Samuel, G. 2001, Healing Powers and Modernity: Traditional Medicine, Shamanism, and Science in Asian Societies Bergin & Garvey, Westport, Connecticut.

  • Connor, M. P., Bynoe, A. G., Redfern, N., Pokora, J., & Clarke, J. 2000, "Developing senior doctors as mentors: a form of continuing professional development. Report Of an initiative to develop a network of senior doctors as mentors: 1994-99", Medical Education, vol. 34, no. 9, pp. 747-753.

  • Day, R. & Davidson, R. H. 1976, "Magic and healing: An ethnopsychoanalytic examination.", Psychoanalytic Study of Society, vol. 7, pp. 2-291.

  • Eisenbruch, M. 1998a, "Cambodian techniques to prevent and treat failure to thrive, childhood epilepsey, and STD/AIDS", Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 503-515.

  • Eisenbruch, M. 1997, Dr Hansen and the crouching mango: Technical document for National AIDS Review.

  • Eisenbruch, M. The ritual space of patients and traditional healers in Cambodia. Bulletin de l'Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient 79[2], 283-316. 1992.

  • Ref Type: Journal (Full)

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  • Eisenbruch, M. 2000a, "Cambodian concepts of perinatal mental disorder: Relevance to understanding Western approaches to perinatal mental health," in Anthropological approaches to psychological medicine, V. Skultans & J. L. Cox, eds., Jessica Kingsley, London, pp. 201-232.

  • Eisenbruch, M. 2000b, "Femmes, enfants et guérisseurs khmers face au Sida," in Sociétés Asiatiques face au Sida, L. Husson & M.-E. Blanc, eds., L'Harmattan, Paris, pp. 341-366.

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  • Gurung, R. A. & Mehta, V. 2001, "Relating ethnic identity, acculturation, and attitudes toward treating minority clients", Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology., vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 139-151.

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  • Helman, C. G. 2000, Culture, health and illness, Fourth edn Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, Oxford.

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  • Kapferer, B. 1983, A celebration of demons: Exorcism and the aesthetics of healing in Sri Lanka Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

  • Kapferer, B. 1988, "REVIEW ARTICLE - Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Critique of Anthropology, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 77-104.

  • Kapferer, B. 1994, "Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka", American Anthropologist, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 172-174.

  • Kapferer, B. 1997, The feast of the sorcerer: Practices of consciousness and power University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

  • Kirmayer, L. J. 1993, "Healing and the invention of metaphor: The effectiveness of symbols revisited.", Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 161-195.

  • Kleinman, A. & Gale, J. L. 1982, "Patients treated by physicians and folk healers: A comparative outcome study in Taiwan.", Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 405-423.

  • Krippner, S. 1995, "A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Four Healing Models", Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 22-29.

  • Laderman, C. 1996, "The poetics of healing in Malay shamanistic performances," in The performance of healing, C. Laderman & M. Roseman, eds., Routledge, New York, pp. 115-142.

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  • Nichter, M. & Nichter, M. 1994, "Acute respiratory illness: Popular health culture and mother's knowledge in the Philippines. Special Issue: Acute respiratory infection.", Medical Anthropology, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 353-375.

  • Noll, R. 1989, "What has really been learned about shamanism? Special Issue: Shamanism and altered states of consciousness.", Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 47-50.

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  • Pachter, L. M., Sumner, T., Fontan, A., Sneed, M., & Bernstein, B. A. 1998, "Home-based therapies for the common cold among European American and ethnic minority families: the interface between alternative/complementary and folk medicine", Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine., vol. 152, 11, pp. 1083-1088.

  • Reynolds, P. 1996, Traditional healers and childhood in Zimbabwe Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio.

  • Schreiber, S. 1995, "Migration, traumatic bereavement and transcultural aspects of psychological healing: loss and grief of a refugee woman from Begameder county in Ethiopia", British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol. 68, Pt 2, pp. 135-142.

  • Skultans, V. 1986, "On mental imagery and healing.", Current Anthropology, vol. 27, no. 3, p. 262.

  • Somasundaram, D. J., van de Put, W. A., Eisenbruch, M., & de Jong, J. T. 1999, "Starting mental health services in Cambodia", Social Science & Medicine, vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 1029-1046.

  • Spencer, J., Handler, R., Kapferer, B., Khare, R. S., McGilvray, D. B., Obeyesekere, G., Segal, D. A., & Southwold, M. 1990, "Writing Within: Anthropology, Nationalism, and Culture in Sri Lanka", Current Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 283-291.

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  • World Health Organization 2001b, Report of the Inter-Regional Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Traditional Medicine. Bangkok, Thailand, 6-8 December 2000 World Health Organization, New Delhi.

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