Indian Minister for AYUSH, Shripad Naik, on the Role of Traditional Medicine in Cancer Care

In early November 2014, Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi appointed Shri Shripad Naik as India’s Minister of State. His responsibilities span both the traditional healing department, AYUSH, and Health & Family Welfare. In two state bulletins in early February 2015, Naik made public some of his views. In a World Cancer Day symposium talk in New Delhi, he took two tacks. First, he urged practitioners “to not only advise the treatment of patients with drugs, but also have the concept of modulating the life-style, dietary regimen, seasonal regimen and behavior to prevent and cure the diseases.” He asserted that these traditional approaches can be curative.

Naik added an integrative twist. Another “important area to be explored” is “integration of AYUSH with conventional healthcare system to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and to prevent the recurrence and metastasis and improve the quality of life of cancer patients.” A separate bulletin underscored Naik’s belief that “a scientific eye and mind is required to explore the value from the vast knowledge base of AYUSH for healthcare of cancer patients.” He offered a global view of cancer management that needs help: “It must be understood that stand alone modern medicine may not be sufficient to meet health needs of the society ailing with this dreaded disease.”

Comment: Naik is in leadership amidst a robust period for traditional medicines in India. Just 2 months before his appointment, Modi elevated AYUSH to its own independent ministry. The 6-month-old independent ministry has “as a part of its mandate to propagate the Indian systems of medicine globally.” Two days before the new ministry was celebrated, India announced an agreement with Bangladesh. The goal: create “a structured frame work for cooperation between the two countries for the promotion of Indian traditional systems of medicine and homeopathy in Bangladesh.” Similar memoranda of understanding (MoU) are in place with Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Hungary with others in consideration in Serbia and Nepal. (A memorandum with the Chinese State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (SATCM) has expired.)

Naik’s view that India’s traditional medicine tradition must be explored “to cure” cancer effects runs contrary to thinking in the research establishment in the United States. The cofounder of the Society for Integrative Oncology, Bernie Cassileth, PhD, recently declared in an ASCO Post article entitled Long and Winding Road to Modern Integrative Oncology that the only value for non-conventional treatments is to diminish side-effects and assist with quality of life. Similarly, in a February 10, 2015, press conference, the director of the US National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Josephine Briggs, MD, essentially declared that natural agents have a lack of curative power for not just cancer but any significant condition. Briggs limited their value to “symptom management and promotion of health.”

Notably, Briggs and Naik are talking apples and oranges here. While the NCCIH tends to reduce its research questions to exploration of one therapy at a time, Naik speaks to AYUSH’s full court press of a whole-person, multifaceted system of traditional medical care. Here’s hoping that such research finds sufficient funding and excellent methodologists.

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