Delegates from the World Health Organization's 191 member states will be meeting in Geneva May 13-18 to discuss the organization's strategy and goals. On the agenda are such issues as AIDS, smallpox, and the threat of bioterrorism, as well as a question about Taiwan.
The WHO Assembly, as the annual meeting is called, is the organization's supreme decision-making body. It brings together health ministers from around the world to discuss a variety of pressing health concerns, including caring for AIDS patients and the best way to deal with the remaining stocks of the smallpox virus now that the disease is virtually eradicated.
A senior official of the organization, Dr. David Nabarro, says the assembly will decide how much of the smallpox virus should remain available for further research.
"There are concerns that perhaps smallpox could reappear as a public health threat, and in those circumstances, it's become clear that many member states do believe that we should still be working on the disease," he said. "In particular, there is a need for better research on the efficacy of potential drug treatments for smallpox. There is also work needed on understanding ways in which the virus can be subject to modification."
Anti-terrorism experts have expressed concern that, with some modification, the smallpox virus could be used by terrorists.
Next week's assembly will also discuss some issues that are more political than medical, such as whether to permit Taiwan to join the organization. Dr. Nabarro said Taiwan's membership would be decided by a vote of the assembly delegates.
"This set of issues around Taiwan-China have to be sorted out by the member states, but there are limits to what one can say as a member of the Secretariat because we just don't know what the assembly is going to decide," Dr. Nabarro said.
China is strongly opposed to efforts by Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China, to become a member of the World Health Organization, saying that the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 1972 recognizing Beijing as the only legitimate representative of China.
WHO officials say next week's meeting will also serve to help the organization prepare for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, scheduled for Johannesburg in August.