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Health Leaders Discuss Polio, Alcohol, Childhood Obesity At WHA

From the 63rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, the Associated Press reports on what some “describe as a new strategy to get rid of” polio that focuses on developing solutions to “problems in each country, provides more WHO monitoring, like more teleconferences, and holds governments more accountable.” The plans also provide “[n]ew [polio] outbreak response plans,” according to the AP. 

Some “say there is little new [in this strategy] and that if this effort fails … serious questions about whether to continue the campaign should be raised,” the news service reports.

“Since WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and Rotary International set out to eradicate polio in 1988, they have come tantalizingly close,” the news service writes. “By 2003, cases had dropped by more than 99 percent. But progress has stalled since and several deadlines have been missed.”

Despite eradication efforts, polio remains “entrenched” in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. “Experts worry that as the effort enters its 22nd year, donors’ patience and wallets are running thin. Sustaining the effort costs about $750 million every year,” the AP reports.

According to the AP, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “said the next three years are ‘critically important’ [to fight polio]. The foundation said their polio donations are reconsidered every year.”

The piece also includes comments from current and former heads of the WHO’s polio programs, who reflect on the new strategy and express concerns over what will happen if the WHO’s polio program is abandoned (Cheng, 5/20).

In related news, the AP reports the WHO’s 193 member states endorsed a “global strategy to reduce alcohol abuse … Harmful drinking is the third leading risk factor for disability and premature death in the world, with 2.5 million deaths each year linked to alcohol, WHO said,” the news service writes. “That figure includes 320,000 people between 15 and 29, and [WHO] said many others are sickened with heart and liver diseases, cancer and even HIV/AIDS because of alcohol abuse,” according to the AP (Klapper, 5/20).

Also at the WHA, leaders “agreed on Thursday to try to reduce children’s consumption of junk food and soft drinks by asking member states to restrict advertising and marketing,” Reuters reports. According to the WHO, some “42 million children under the age of five are overweight, 35 million of them in developing countries,” the news service writes (Nebehay, 5/20).

U.S. Surgeon-General Regina Benjamin welcomed WHO’s childhood obesity plan during the WHA.

“The United States thanks the WHO for its work on the global strategy for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases,” Benjamin said, in remarks prepared for delivery during the meeting. “Because non-communicable diseases are a significant public health issue that affect both developing and developed countries, we continue to support the WHO’s Action Plan for implementing the global strategy, such as the inclusion of all stakeholders in that work, as the reduction of non-communicable diseases is a shared responsibility” (5/20).

WHO Faces Questions Of Handling of H1N1

In related news, the BBC reports on how the topic of the WHO’s handling of the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic remains high on the agenda at the WHA. The piece reflects on health experts’ skepticism that the virus outbreak was classified as a pandemic.

“The WHO has struggled to offer clear answers on the question of its definition of a pandemic, partly because of its policy of keeping the identity and the deliberations of its pandemic emergency advisory committee secret,” the BBC writes. “The lack of transparency in its decision making process, together with the WHO’s advice to countries to begin widespread vaccination against swine flu, has led some observers to suspect undue influence from the pharmaceutical industry” (Foulkes, 5/20).

Meanwhile, “[a]n expert panel investigating the World Health Organization’s response to last year’s swine flu outbreak said Wednesday it wants to see confidential exchanges between the U.N. body and drug companies,” the AP/Washington Post reports. Committee chairman and U.S. Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg said the panel plans to seek documents of correspondence between the groups before and after the WHO declared H1N1 to be a pandemic, according to the news service.

“The documents include ‘contractual or letters of understanding’ between the pharmaceutical industry and WHO, [Fineberg] said. ‘Some of the agreements with industry that we would like to examine have been considered confidential,’ but so far all of the panel’s requests have been met, he said” (Jordans, 5/19).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.