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WHO Sets Health Priorities for 2004 - 2004-01-14

Reproductive health, the prevention of heart disease and organ transplantation will top the World Health Organization's priorities this year. Senior World Health Organization officials say those issues will be submitted to its Executive Board next week in Geneva.

The World Health Organization says of the 210 million women who become pregnant each year, eight million suffer from life-threatening complications. It says more than one-half million women, 99 percent of them in developing countries, died from pregnancy-related complications in 2002.

The Head of WHO's Family and Community Health Program, Joy Phumaphi, says maternal deaths remain high even though the tools to reduce them are available.

"The question is the strength of the health systems, particularly in developing countries, to be able to implement these interventions. And once they have put them in place, to sustain them. That is the challenge," she stressed. "And this is the type of support that we now seek to give countries to make sure that the interventions are implemented. We are introducing a new approach to making pregnancies safer, making it more country specific so that we can actually support those countries who have not been able to sustain the interventions at community and family level."

The Executive Board is also concerned with the relationship between unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, and the increase in heart diseases, type two diabetes, cancer and obesity. WHO reports these diseases account for nearly two-thirds of deaths around the world and almost half of the costs of health care.

WHO's draft strategy emphasizes that healthier diet, nutrition and physical activity can help to prevent and control many of these diseases.

Human organ and tissue transplantation is an area of growing controversy. In 1991, the WHO established some guiding principles for organ transplantation based on ethical and safety concerns.

But the man in charge of these issues, Alex Capron, says these principles may have to be revised in light of potential risks and related problems. He says concerns are increasing over the growing trade in human organs from living donors.

"On human trafficking, where there is really substantial evidence of lack of voluntary consent on the part of people who are being paid relatively small amounts of money to be donors, principally of kidneys," he said.

Dr. Capron says tighter regulations must be enacted on xenotransplantation, that is the transplantation of animal organs and tissues into humans. He says measures must be in place to make sure that animal viruses are not transmitted into the human population.