Commentary

Politicizing Health and Harming Patients

When the SARS epidemic was circling the globe, the World Health Organization purported to be leading efforts to treat the disease. But the WHO was reluctant to send staffers to Taiwan, hard-hit due to its extensive ties with China.

For the WHO, politics was more important than health.

Taipei is not a member of the WHO because most nations, including the United States, formally consider it to be part of China. And China objected to any WHO teams traveling to Taiwan. With no thanks to the WHO or Beijing, Taiwan avoided a disastrous outbreak.

Unfortunately, like most United Nations agencies, the WHO’s activities have long been captive to a highly political agenda. For instance, earlier this year the organization claimed that a third of childhood deaths in Europe resulted from environmental causes.

It’s a preposterous assertion. European analysts Jaap Hanekamp and Julian Morris observe, “few of these deaths were actually caused by problems generally associated with ‘the environment.’ Out of 100,000 total deaths, 75,000 were caused by accidents.” The remainder, most in poorer countries such as Russia and Turkey, largely resulted from problems like malaria, poor sanitation and dirty water.

But the facts didn’t stop the WHO. It was particularly upset about the presumed threat of global warming, which, it claimed, would result in “more widespread and severe” deaths. Yet, Hanekamp and Morris archly observe, “No scientific evidence was offered to support these claims - perhaps because none exists.”

Nevertheless, the WHO is advancing its so-called Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe which proposes more regulations over technology, such as fossil fuels, pesticides, and plastics. The result would make us all poorer, yet wealthier societies are better able to prevent and treat illness.

For instance, the pesticide DDT is one of the most effective means to kill mosquitoes, which spread malaria. Important medical devices are made from plastics.

The WHO is ignoring problems that today kill millions while fretting over worst-case scenarios for the future that are unlikely ever to occur. Simply providing clean water and improving sanitation would do more to help Third World peoples than would most of the WHO’s highly-publicized initiatives.

The organization has advanced the “Roll Back Malaria” program, along with UNICEF, the World Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Unlike global warming, malaria does kill. Yet the WHO has been distributing two drugs which are no longer effective in Africa.

Moreover, complain Robert Bate and Richard Tren, respectively a British and a South African health care analyst, “Roll Back Malaria partners are unwilling to fund interventions that work but upset environmentalists, such as indoor insecticide spraying.” It was widespread outdoor use of DDT years ago that had adverse environmental consequences; poor nations throughout Africa and South Asia are begging for assistance to undertake carefully targeted use indoors.

It’s hard to know if anyone died because the WHO kowtowed to Beijing rather than cooperated with Taipei. Failing to fund effective anti-malaria measures does kill.

Equally important, organization missteps involving the treatment of AIDS have harmed untold numbers of poor people in poor countries. The WHO actually has impeded distribution of effective medications.

Treating AIDS is one of the organization’s primary responsibilities. Yet earlier this year the WHO was forced to remove foreign copies of patented AIDS drugs by the Indian firms Cipla and Ranbaxy from its list of pre-qualified medicines. In November Ranbaxy pulled its remaining seven antivirals from the WHO program.

As millions have suffered and died of HIV/AIDS, political activists worldwide have attacked the drugmakers. Yet without research-driven pharmaceutical companies, we would still live in the pre-1987 world, when there was no treatment for AIDS and the diagnosis was a death sentence. Rather than pay for innovative new drugs, the WHO has promoted foreign knockoffs. Alas, the copies couldn’t be certified as biologically equivalent or safe.

Thus, the WHO has endangered the very people it was supposed to be helping. The inadequate drugs risked encouraging the AIDS virus to mutate into strains resistant to all medicines.

Moreover, diverting treatment dollars into inferior pharmaceuticals reduced the financial incentive for drug companies to develop newer and better products.

It’s an appalling record, one of “Bad decisions, missed deadlines and bogus AIDS drugs,” complains Waldemar Ingdahl, Director of Eudoxa, a Swedish think tank: “Africans and the poor should not be treated with bad medicine.”

The WHO has gone badly astray. Director-General Lee Jong-wook, chosen less than a year ago, must put good health before bad politics. Only then will the WHO live up to its promise, promoting health rather than harm.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.