May 31, 2002
The World Health Organization plans to step up its campaign against poverty-related diseases while intensifying its programs aimed at tackling cardiovascular disease, obesity, and other ailments of richer nations, Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland told the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) on May 13.
Brundtland outlined in her opening address to the 191-nation WHA the need to "reinvigorate WHO's work on diet, food safety, and human nutrition, linking basic research with efforts to tackle specific nutrient deficiencies in populations and the promotion of good health through optimal diets."
Brundtland did not back away from tackling illnesses of poverty. Reviewing WHO efforts at putting health firmly on political agendas and pioneering global initiatives such as Roll Back Malaria, Stop TB and immunization partnerships, she stressed that more is needed.
"We must further increase funding for tackling the illnesses of poverty. We must increase the number of people who can access treatments, like antiretrovirals, at the same time as we scale up prevention programs. We must do all we can to increase access to essential medicine and health technologies," she continued.
As Brundtland was speaking, Médicines San Frontiéres (MSF) stationed a truck carrying an exhibition entitled "TRAPPED" outside the UN compound in a bid to drive home its concerns that WHO isn't doing enough on this front. While applauding WHO's recognition of generic producers such as Cipla and the recent inclusion of antiretrovirals on its list of essential medicine, it urged WHO to show more courage in the battle with pharmaceutical giants to further lower drug prices for poor countries.
"WHO has been a follower, not a leader; an observer, not an actor" said Ellen 't Hoen, coordinator of MSF Access Campaign. "Be more active. We need a strong public health voice for those who are silent," she appealed.
A grassroots coalition from developing countries, under the banner of the People's Health Assembly, accused WHO of forgetting its former goal of Health for All by 2000. Pointing to data showing the alarming fall of health standards, the group said, "During a period of 10 years between 1990 and 2000 life expectancy of over a billion people has gone down by 10 years from 50 to 40."