Wed, Nov 24, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Politicizing health harms patients

By Doug Bandow

When the SARS epidemic was circling the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) purported to be leading efforts to treat the disease. But the WHO was reluctant to send staffers to Taiwan, hard-hit due to its extensive ties with China.

For the WHO, politics was more important than health. Tai-pei is not a member of the WHO because most nations, including the US, formally consider it to be part of China. And Beijing objected to any WHO teams traveling to Taiwan. With no thanks to the WHO or Beijing, Taiwan avoided a disastrous outbreak.

Unfortunately, like most UN agencies, the WHO's activities have long been captive to a highly political agenda. For instance, earlier this year the organization claimed that a third of childhood deaths in Europe resulted from environmental causes.

It's a preposterous assertion. European analysts Jaap Hane-kamp and Julian Morris observe: "few of these deaths were actually caused by problems generally associated with `the environment.' Out of 100,000 total deaths, 75,000 were caused by accidents." The remainder, most in poorer countries such as Russia and Turkey, largely resulted from problems like malaria, poor sanitation and dirty water.

But the facts didn't stop the WHO. It was particularly upset about the presumed threat of global warming, which, it claimed, would result in "more widespread and severe" deaths.

Yet, Hanekamp and Morris archly observe, "No scientific evidence was offered to support these claims -- perhaps because none exists."

Nevertheless, the WHO is advancing its so-called Children's Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe which proposes more regulations over technology, such as fossil fuels, pesticides and plastics. The result would make us all poorer, yet wealthier societies are better able to prevent and treat illness.

For instance, the pesticide DDT is one of the most effective means to kill mosquitoes, which spread malaria. Important medical devices are made from plastics. The WHO is ignoring problems that today kill millions while fretting over worst-case scenarios for the future that are unlikely ever to occur.

Simply providing clean water and improving sanitation would do more to help Third World peoples than would most of the WHO's highly-publicized initiatives.

The organization has advanced the "Roll Back Malaria" program, along with UNICEF, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development. Unlike global warming, malaria does kill. Yet the WHO has been distributing two drugs which are no longer effective in Africa.

Moreover, complain health-care analysts Robert Bate of the UK and Richard Tren, a South African, "Roll Back Malaria partners are unwilling to fund interventions that work but upset environ-mentalists, such as indoor insecticide spraying." It was widespread outdoor use of DDT years ago that had adverse environmental con-sequences; poor nations throughout Africa and South Asia are begging for help to undertake carefully targeted use indoors.

It's hard to know if anyone died because the WHO kowtowed to Beijing rather than cooperating with Taipei. Failing to fund effective anti-malaria measures does kill. Equally important, organization missteps involving the treatment of AIDS have harmed untold numbers of poor people in poor countries. The WHO actually has impeded distribution of effective medications.

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