WHO calls for more equitable world, healthier people

Geneva, May 11 (IPS) - A healthier humanity could build a more just world is the theme permeating the report presented by World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland to this year's World Health Assembly of health ministers and other leaders.

The new WHO orientations for health-related action in the 21st century will save millions of lives after a decade of application, and will have a considerable impact on the well- being of the global population and the fight against poverty, the report underlines.

"Most of the world's poor people," Mrs Brundtland said, "would no longer suffer today's burden of premature death and excessive disability, and poverty itself would thereby be much reduced. Healthy life expectancy would increase for all. Smoking and other risks to health would fade in significance."

Financial obligations arising from healthcare needs would be more equitably shared, while health systems could respond with greater quality, efficiency, and compassion to the increasingly diverse demands, according to Brundtland.

But the changes proposed by the new WHO report call for vision, commitment and global leadership, not only from governments but from the private sector and civil society as well, she stressed.

"Working together, we have the opportunity to transform lives now debilitated by disease and fear of economic ruin into lives filled with realistic hopes, "said Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland in the report.

"I have pledged to place health at the core of the global development agenda. This is where it belongs," she stated. "Wise investments in health can prove to be the most successful strategies to lead people out of poverty."

The WHO report describes the 20th century health revolution, which dramatically reduced birth rates and drove up life expectancy, transforming demographic structures and contributing to economic growth.

But the document acknowledges that large sectors have failed to perceive the benefits. More than one billion will reach the 21st century without having taken part in the revolution in health, it adds.

The most vulnerable sectors continue suffering the burden of "unnecessary" illness and malnutrition. The priority of international health action consists of reducing such inequalities. "Furthermore, it can be done - the means already exist," Brundtlant underscored.

The outlook for the first few decades of the 21st century is one of many challenges for authorities, due to the double burden of disease.

On one hand, the incidence of noncommunicable diseases and injuries is expected to rise in both industrialised and developing countries. And on the other lies the "unfinished agenda" of the fight against infectious diseases, malnutrition and complications of childbirth - whose main victims are the poor.

Brundtland pointed to cost-effective interventions for dealing with the "unfinished agenda," but added that prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases were likely to be more difficult and costly.

The report specifically announces concerted global actions to tackle malaria and prevent smoking-related deaths.

In the case of malaria, the total number of deaths caused by the disease could be reduced to around 500,000 a year, or half of the deaths registered today. That enormous achievement could be brought about by an additional investment of one billion dollars a year.

Every year some 300 to 500 million cases of malaria are documented, with around one million deaths, mainly among children in sub-Saharan Africa, the report adds.

"Tackling malaria is thus a major battle in the war against poverty. Malaria is a social and economic development issue, not just a health concern," Brundtland stressed.

The document also urges a global ban on all publicity for tobacco, steadily rising taxes on cigarettes, improved access to tobacco substitutes like nicotine patches, and the creation of anti-smoking coalitions. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor(SUNS).

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