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Study Concludes Health Needs Should Take Precedence Over Trade - 2002-08-22


A joint study by the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization says there is no inherent conflict between international trade rules and health. But the two organizations say that if there is a dispute, public health needs should take precedence over trade agreements.

Anti-globalization activists contend that free trade undermines public health.

But WTO deputy director general Miguel Rodriguez Mendoza says the study shows that international trade has contributed to a rise in living standards. And he says this has improved health and life expectancy in countries worldwide.

Mr. Mendoza agrees a country's health problems can severely limit economic growth. For example, he notes that Botswana will see its growth rate cut by half because of HIV/AIDS. But, Mr. Mendoza says the study shows WTO trade agreements are sensitive to health issues. "In fact, health concerns can take precedence over trade issues," he said. "If necessary, governments may put aside the WTO commitments in order to protect human, animal, or plant life."

The report says flexibility in negotiations can deal with potential conflicts between health and trade. It points to an accord that allows poor countries to buy lower-cost medicines to treat HIV/AIDS.

And, the study's authors say it is important to understand that WTO trade agreements can be modified and adapted to changing conditions.

The coordinator of the WHO strategy unit, Nick Drager says it is possible to find common ground between trade and health. "Our interest is to make sure that these trade rules improve health, particularly of the poor, improve health in terms of access to services, access to drugs that are affordable, good quality services are to be set," he said. "I think one of the tasks of WHO is to work with ministries of health to start understanding these [trade] agreements, to start understanding these linkages and for them to mitigate any risks that are going to happen here and to take advantage of the opportunities."

The 171-page study is being released in advance of the Earth Summit, a U.N. conference to promote sustainable development that begins next week in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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