A month ago, some investigative reporters at Reuters did a big expose article contending the World Health Organization had been compromised in its efforts to combat non-communicable diseases — aka NCDs like obesity, diabetes and heart disease — by allowing the food and beverage industry too much influence over its public health initiatives.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s Malaria Forum in Seattle comes to an end today and has certainly lived up to its theme of “Optimism and Urgency.”
There is legitimate cause for optimism, especially if you look at where the world is today in its efforts to combat this leading killer as compared to where we were a decade ago.
Malaria deaths are down, an experimental vaccine is showing modest success against the parasite and this once-neglected disease and poorly funded field is now big news with a lot more money behind it. I think it’s fair to say the Gates Foundation, which has spent $1.5 billion on (and advocated for) malaria efforts over the past decade, is responsible for much of that transformation.
But the Gates Foundation, and to some extent the entire global health community, has a tendency to only want to talk about good news — to be optimistic. It’s understandable, but that also poses a risk.
“It’s been a bit like singing ‘Kumbaya‘ around the campfire,” said one top malaria researcher. It’s nice to celebrate progress, he said, but the structure of the meeting — which included the Gateses’ call for a ‘re-commitment’ to eradication — somewhat tended to discourage dissent and debate. Continue reading
At the close of the week-long meeting of the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, it’s worth asking what was accomplished in Geneva to advance global health.
The WHO, which is supposed to set priorities and establish guidelines for the international community’s many efforts aimed at improving health or fighting disease, received the most attention for delaying a decision on whether or not to recommend finally destroying all remaining samples of smallpox virus.
As the Associated Press reported:
After two days of heated debate, the 193-nation World Health Assembly agreed by consensus to a compromise that calls for another review in 2014.
It’s a debate that’s been going on since 1986, following the 1980 eradication of this deadly and terrifying disease. The U.S. and Russia, which hold the remaining known smallpox stockpiles, opposed destruction in favor of continuing research. Most other countries wanted the scourge totally removed from the planet. Continue reading
A number of civil society and non-profit organizations are claiming that the World Health Organization is overly influenced by commercial and corporate interests.
At this week’s World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Corporate Accountability International, which represents 100 organizations from 24 countries, claims the WHO is compromising its independence and mission of improving global health. The critics say:
The group is concerned about the influence companies could have on the WHO as it implements its Millennium Development Goals, which set benchmarks for improving access to drinking water and sanitation, and the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.
The umbrella organization delivered a formal letter to WHO director general Margaret Chan asking that the UN agency reject corporate influence and maintain its independence.
The AFP reports on another group, Council of Canadians, which contends WHO’s policy on water has favored the interest of corporations who seek to privatize many public water sources. The AFP quotes the Council chair Maude Barlow:
“The concern is that the relationship between the highest levels of the United Nations and the private water sector legitimizes the growing influence of these corporations on policy, both at the UN and at the nation-state level, which in turn promotes a private market system for water delivery and access at the expense of the public and the poor.”
One of the hardest things for any organization working in development — or, well, anyone doing anything — is to readily acknowledge failure.
So some Canadian engineers want to make it easier.
For example, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, got media attention Monday for sort of acknowledging failure. Chan admitted the WHO is not performing well, but said this is because it is over-extended — “asked to do more and more” — and inadequately funded.
I’m not sure that’s so much an admission of failure as it is also a little bit of finger-pointing (since WHO depends upon donor funding to do its job). Continue reading
The World Health Organization issued a report this week on how we’re doing in the battle against malaria.
We’re doing quite well, thank you very much, at least in terms of getting existing tools of prevention like bed nets and household insecticides to millions more people. Says the WHO:
A massive scale-up in malaria control programmes between 2008 and 2010 has resulted in the provision of enough insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) to protect more than 578 million people at risk of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Indoor residual spraying has also protected 75 million people, or 10% of the population at risk in 2009.
This rapid expansion in distributing these preventive measures across Africa has been accompanied by a significant decline in malaria cases and deaths, the WHO reports, generally amounting to a 50 percent reduction in malaria morbidity and mortality over the past decade.
As NPR’s Richard Knox reports, such progress remains fragile but many believe the “End to Malaria Deaths is in Sight.” Knox says:
Imagine a world where malaria doesn’t kill a single person. Look ahead to 2015 and that could be close to reality.
He quotes several top experts enthusiastic enough about the possibility that the positive trends in beating back malaria to predict that this is achievable. But Knox goes on to point out the many challenges ahead, funding shortfalls, drug resistance and so forth.
The Guardian similarly reports “Malaria in Retreat” but the gains are fragile, in response to the WHO report. The newspaper quotes the chief of the WHO:
“The results set out in this report are the best seen in decades,” said WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan. “After so many years of deterioration and stagnation in the malaria situation, countries and their development partners are now on the offensive. Current strategies work.”
From a different angle and on a more downbeat note, perhaps, Reuters takes a hard look at what’s being done to create the only tool that some experts say will really be able to completely conquer malaria — a vaccine. In an extensive article, Reuters reporters look at the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on research to come up with an effective malaria vaccine and ask:
The bottom-line question: is the vaccine — and the global health community’s aim of completely eradicating a disease that kills a child every 45 seconds — really worth the money?
The report immediately goes on to say that it “seems an absurd thing to ask.” Take a look at the article and decide for yourself if they proved it wasn’t.