Scope of Public Health can’t be restricted to a few diseases, Brundtland

Geneva, 15 Jan (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland insisted Wednesday that one should be careful about excluding some diseases from the scope of the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, and not limit the scope (for compulsory licensing and imports) to a few very prominent ones like HIV/AIDS, TB or Malaria.

Dr. Brundtland was responding to questions at a press conference where the chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body for a WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was releasing and explaining the Chairman’s revised text to go before the 6th and final session of the INB.

Earlier, Dr. Brundtland had spoken of the importance of the convention to control a major public health problem, use of tobacco and smoking, which was already causing about two million deaths a year, and will be rise to 10 million over the decade, with most of it in developing countries, due to cancer and other diseases caused by smoking and tobacco.

In a reference to the debates at the WTO where the US is trying to restrict the scope of diseases (for compulsory licensing and imports by countries having insufficient or no manufacturing capacity) and the EC is trying to involve the WHO into arbitration of sorts, a correspondent asked Dr. Brundtland for her comments about tobacco being a public health problem in the wider context of the current public health issues and debate.

Since tobacco was causing cancer, emphysema, heart diseases and hyper tension and such public health problems in developing countries, would the WHO inject itself into this debate and make the public health case against patents on these drugs being used to restrict access or price them high?

The WHO head said that the WHO advice and position was to work on the basis of the political declaration from Doha. “Indeed,” said Dr. Brundtland, “one should be careful about excluding areas when discussing major public health issues.” The right to issue compulsory licenses and import (where there is no capacity) should not be restricted to prominent diseases figuring in public discussions - AIDS, TB or Malaria.

Earlier, Dr. Brundtland said the focus on tobacco and its control did not mean that the WHO did not recognize other public health problems, such as those linked to alcohol.

However, alcohol was not sold as freely in all countries as tobacco was. In Norway, for example, there were any number of restriction on shops selling liquor - age restrictions, opening of shops and selling etc.

The WHO head also commented on reports about the influence that the food industry was trying to exercise over the WHO (and its standard setting and health issues in joint committees with FAO).

She noted that in the early part of her term, they began investigating the influence of the tobacco industry over the WHO, and then arose issues about the conflicts of interest of people working in the secretariat, or on advisory committees, or as expert advisory to the WHO.

As a result, they had instituted a new system to ensure avoidance of potential conflicts of interest. People from industry being consulted had to make known their past or current links and affiliations so that those working with them on such bodies know these exactly.

In big global industries, where economic interests are large, WHO has to be certain that the advice from experts is available, but also of the possible conflicts. “We can work with industry, but we also have to promote good practices,” she said. – SUNS5263

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