Accessibility links

World: WHO Takes On New Killers And Old

  • Don Hill

The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) starts its annual health assembly today in Geneva. The assembly has drawn keen interest because of the recent rise of SARS. SARS is on this year's agenda, but assembly organizers say the bulk of the 10-day session will be devoted to threats that pose a greater danger to world health than SARS.

Prague, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) convenes its 58th World Health Assembly today in Geneva.

The event ordinarily draws delegates from 192 member states and from health-oriented nongovernmental organizations around the world and perhaps 50 journalists, many of them specialists in covering health issues. This year, however, some 80 journalists already have applied for accreditation and many more are expected as walk-ins during the session, which lasts until 28 May.

WHO staff member Christine McNab says the main reason for the flurry of journalistic activity is SARS, a sinister disease whose existence wasn't even known when the agenda for this year's assembly was set. But as McNab points out, the meeting's agenda focuses on issues that pose greater health threats than SARS.

"One major one will be the -- well, the scheduled adoption of the framework convention on tobacco control. This convention has been negotiated with member states for the last three years."

The WHO began in 1999, under a special power provided for in its constitution, to develop its first international health treaty. Last February, in a fifth and final negotiating session, member states of the World Health Assembly completed a draft of what is called a framework convention on tobacco.

Jon Liden, an assistant to WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, told RFE/RL at the time that the framework does not attempt to be international legislation to control tobacco use. Instead, it contains 38 articles aimed at gradually reducing -- through individual national laws -- the supply and demand for tobacco products.

"Through the treaty, we'll have some very effective, clear text that says the world as a whole sees tobacco as a huge health problem, that it aims at reducing tobacco consumption, [and] that there is a universal understanding of the need to control tobacco supply and tobacco use."

Delegates at the current assembly are expected to adopt the framework and take its provisions back to their countries for ratification and implementation. WHO's McNab says it's an immense public-health issue.

"If we don't do something about tobacco, we're going to see 10 million people per year by 2020 dying from tobacco use. So this framework convention will put the tools in place where they will help countries to adopt their own tobacco legislation and will help to see that tide turned and tobacco usage stemmed."

This assembly also will be electing a successor to Director-General Brundtland. Its executive board nominated a Korean physician and immunologist in January. He is Jonj Wook Lee, and McNab says he is expected to be accepted without difficulty for a term that begins in July.

And then, of course, there is SARS.

"Another issue: SARS certainly," McNab said. "There will be a technical briefing on SARS. It's not yet on the official agenda, as the agenda was devised before we knew there was SARS. There will be a major technical briefing to give ministers of health, the public, the media a chance to get the most up-to-date information on SARS."

She says examination of the frightening, flu-like disease will take on a broader theme -- that is, how to prepare for other suddenly arising health threats.

"And to look at what we need to do, maybe, differently, what we need more of in the future in order to deal with not only SARS but other potential emerging diseases of the next century."

The 58th World Health Assembly is set to look also at some more common -- but still deadly -- illnesses. One of these is measles. A rather benign disease in the prosperous West, measles kills many thousands of children a year in the developing world. The assembly expects also to debate the problem of providing life-saving medicines to the poorer nations.

Finally, WHO recently published a study of a malign force that daily kills millions of people, rich and poor, male and female, young and old with a kind of democratic indifference. It is physical injury. The report says road traffic accidents kill nearly 1.3 million people a year; suicide, more than 800,000; interpersonal violence, half a million; poisoning and armed conflict, more than 300,000 each; and falls and burns more than 280,000 each. The assembly plans to take this matter up as a public health threat also.