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WHO: Countries Without Diseases Produce Huge Economic Gains - 2001-12-20

A new World Health Organization report says good health is vital to economic growth in poor countries. As a result, it urges significant increases in foreign aid to promote health.

The WHO says disease-free populations in developing nations would produce enormous economic gains.

A special World Health Organization commission has been examining the relationship between development and health for two years. The findings by the global panel of 18 leading economists and public health experts challenge the traditional argument that economic growth leads to better health. Instead, it points out that good health is a prerequisite to development.

The panel's chair, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, says disease restrains economies. "The effects on economic development, on family structure, on population, on skill development, on foreign direct investment are enormous," he said. "They are a major reason why many of the poorest countries have not progressed in the last 20 years in economic terms, despite many attempts of international agencies to help those countries get on track."

The report says that just a few diseases, including AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, are responsible for most of the avoidable deaths in the developing world. Yet the technologies to control them exist.

The WHO asserts that well-targeted measures using these technologies could save eight million lives per year, and the larger, healthier workforce would improve productivity and earnings in poor countries.

What's the cost? Sixty-six billion dollars a year above current spending. The report says half would come from extra foreign aid by donor countries. Poor nations would provide the other half by reprioritizing their budgets.

Dr. Sachs says the rich nation portion of the contribution would amount to only one penny of every $10 of income. He says the extra $66 billion for health eventually would generate about six times its value, or $360 billion a year by about 2015.

"An attack on disease will help us achieve our global aims of economic development on a broad base, greater global security by having fewer states collapse and becoming breeding grounds for crime or terrorism," he says.

The current economic recession may not seem the best time to urge more foreign assistance. Even in boom times, international health programs have been underfunded. But the Harvard economist points out that many world leaders and the heads of multilateral and U.N. agencies have supported the report's concepts in private discussions with him.

"My own view is that there is a sea change underway in the world setting right now where the rich countries understand that if they just leave things to fester in the poor countries, we're not going to have the kind of world that we want or the kind of security that we want," he says.

More evidence of support for global public health comes from the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives recently passed a measure providing $750 million to the new Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The legislation is pending in the Senate.

The head of a private U.S. organization called "Results" that works to end world hunger, Joanne Carter, says U.S. lawmakers are paying more attention to AIDS and TB than ever. Still, she calls the measure only a down payment on what is needed.

"While this year there have been modest increases in funding, what's been provided is still woefully inadequate to tackle these diseases. As events after September 11 have really shown us, this is not a matter of whether we can afford this, but in fact whether it's a political priority and whether we can make the links to the long-term benefits for ourselves," she says.

World Health Organization Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland says the report is not just another plea for more health resources. She says she expects it to have a profound influence on how her agency and its partners will prioritize their work for global health.