Chinese ethnic medicine experts are calling for protection of traditional medicines that they say is being thwarted by a lack of standards and new practitioners.
Mei Zhinan, an expert in traditional ethnic medicines at the South Central University for Nationalities, said 80 percent of China's 55 minority groups, accounting for up to seven percent of the country's 1.3 billion population, had their own traditional medicines and secret formulas handed down since ancient times.
The State Ministry of Health had registered more than 8,000 different types of traditional medicines, including 1,908 Tibetan, 1,342 Mongolian and 600 Uygur remedies.
"These medicines are made of natural herbs after simple processing like grinding," said Mei.
"They are cheap, free from contamination and effective, as they have cured ailments and saved lives of people who live in harsh conditions and do not have access to Western drugs.
"Although credited with curing illnesses, these medicines are usually not refined. They are made in traditional forms like balls or powder, which are hard to take," said Mei, explaining why they were not popular.
The lack of new practitioners was another challenge.
"Fewer people know about the medicines now and some formulas have become extinct," said Zhou Yijun, deputy dean of the College of Life and Environment Sciences at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities.
"These medicines were not documented, but imparted person-to-person from master to apprentice. Many ethnic medicine experts have passed away, diminishing the pool of knowledge," said Zhou.
"China has fewer than 10,000 registered ethnic medicine experts and 200 such hospitals," said Zhu Guoben, head of China Medicine of Minorities.
"In comparison, there are two million doctors of Western medicine, and any major Western-style medical hospital is better equipped than all the 200 ethnic hospitals.
Experts have called for better protection of these medicines and appealed for the establishment of a special office to coordinate the efforts.
"We need to preserve these medicines and seek ways to better use them," said Qin Xunyun, a doctor with the Beijing Dekun Yao Minority Hospital.
"We also need to research the formulations, efficacy, safety and working mechanisms of these medicines," added Qin.
China has more than 200 government-run research centres of minority medicines and 15 private institutes in its hinterland areas like Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan.
About 150 pharmaceutical firms had been set up to produce the minority medicines last year.