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World Health Assembly opens to Taiwan outrage, smallpox debate, speeches by Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus’ arch-enemy

World Health Organization

The World Health Assembly opens today in Geneva for week-long confab on what to do about global health.

I’ve not attended one of these meetings, which sets priorities for the World Health Organization, but from a distance it always looks like kind of a mess. A well-intentioned mess maybe but a mess nonetheless, partly because almost everything under the sun is allowed a place on the agenda.

For example, Taiwan is expected to try to make a stink about WHO referring to it as part of China and experts will continue to argue — likely without resolution — over whether or not to destroy the remaining smallpox virus lab samples. WHO’s recent report on the deadly risk of noise pollution may come up. Maybe they will have to finally decide if cell phones are good for health or bad for health.

The problem seems to be a lack of focus or triage, of taking action based on the most urgent priorities.

Maternal and child health is clearly a top “talking point” for global health. Hundreds of thousands of mothers die from complications of childbirth and millions of children die from easily prevented or treated diseases every year. Reducing theses death tolls represent two of the world’s eight Millennium Development Goals.

Yet as David Olson notes in Blog 4 Global Health, little has actually been done and world leaders sometimes even fail to mention global health, let alone maternal and child health, as an international priority. As David notes:

But whether all of the pontification and passing of resolutions that take place here in the next week makes any difference at all depends on the extent to which the health ministers and their country delegations take these issues to heart, with real resources and supportive policy change.

Also on the Assembly’s agenda, for Tuesday, Bill Gates will urge donors to support efforts to expand access to childhood immunizations. Gates will later join WHO director general Margaret Chan, who gave today’s opening address, in a press conference.

Gates will be preceded by Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, and a woman who is widely viewed as hostile to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance guru Muhammad Yunus. Yunus was recently ousted from his pioneering microfinance institution Grameen Bank by the Bangladeshi government, which appears to want to take more control of the bank — which holds $1 billion in loans and, for now, is owned by the borrowers.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.