Political Agendas Affect Health of WHO Projects
BYLINE: David Dickson
As votes were cast for a new director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the agency was engaged in a sharp exchange with the Chinese government over whether a new strain of bird flu had emerged in China.
This controversy epitomises the challenges facing the United Nations health agency - the need to steer a robust course embracing both science and politics.
The timing was ironic. Not only is the new director-general, Margaret Chan, China's candidate for the post, but she owes her success partly to her commitment both to open communication and to her achievements, first as the health department's director in Hong Kong - where she led campaigns against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and bird flu - and more recently as head of the WHO's own efforts in this field.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which Chan can balance her enthusiasm for getting messages out with an equal eagerness for ensuring that these ideas are scientifically sound.
Chan has identified a need for evidence-based approaches to decision-making on health issues. She has promised to establish a "global health observatory" that will collect and collate data on key health problems to help inform health policy.
She has also pledged to "promote national and global mechanisms to apply knowledge and technology, and increase local capacity to conduct research".
Both commitments fit well with the emerging role that many expect from the WHO.
As national governments and private foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, increasingly support the practical aspects of improving healthcare in developing countries, the WHO should turn towards strategic interventions, playing an advocacy role in promoting new policy initiatives.
These initiatives will only succeed if they are thoroughly grounded in sound scientific conclusions. If the WHO wants to influence government policy, it must take care that its arguments have a rigorous scientific basis, particularly when these are likely to be widely reported.
The agency must also increase its efforts to ensure that research results are applied in the field and not restricted to laboratory research. This is particularly true for "neglected diseases" that affect people in the developing world, who hold little attraction as potential customers of pharmaceutical companies. …