Politics & Policy

Who Says What?

The World Health Organization should be red-faced over SARS.

Last year, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America reported on a bogus World Health Organization study that said the gene responsible for natural blonde hair would be extinct in 200 years. The flaxen-haired Sawyer fretted about “going the way of the snail darter.”

Alas, it was not to be. CNN, CBS, and other major news organizations across the globe fell for the dumb-blonde bait. A week later, it was revealed that the story was a hoax by someone claiming to be a WHO staffer.

#ad#When the WHO speaks, the world media listen like lambs in a petting zoo. Why, exactly? The Geneva-based organization has, at times, been an overtly political organ. Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO’s director-general, has chastised “ethically unacceptable” biotechnology research which is “carried out in the industrialized world, and is primarily market-driven.” She scoffs at tobacco companies’ “unhealthy hunt for profits.”

Given the WHO’s occasional penchant for political posturing, it’s entirely possible that it was playing politics when it recommended last week against nonessential travel to Toronto on account of the SARS outbreak. It had to appear evenhanded in what had earlier been seen as an epidemic striking only Asian nations.

This week the WHO lifted its fatwa against Toronto — without a stitch of remorse. “There is a different evaluation one week later,” Bruntland blankly told reporters. This unapologetic retreat must be maddening for local retailers, conference-organizers, and hotel operators, still reeling from the economic aftershocks of WHO’s blacklisting.

Public-health leaders here have marshaled unassailable evidence that WHO’s original decision to single out Toronto was based on flawed empiricism. The WHO’s choice to warn travelers about Toronto was based on five sketchy cases of suspected SARS, all of which had shown no evidence of transmission after a ten-day period. No WHO official had even bothered to visit Toronto before issuing the advisory.

The WHO, it should be noted, has a record of bad math. Evidence of dubious statistics used to prop up an ideological agenda may be seen most glaringly in the WHO’s global rankings of health systems. In 2000, the United States placed 37th on the list, just below Costa Rica and just above Slovenia. Canada came in 30th — behind Morocco, Cyprus, Colombia, and Oman.

Remarkably, the WHO ranks Cuba at near parity with Canada in “overall health-care performance” — even though clean bandages are hard to find in Havana’s hospitals. The reason for Cuba’s high ranking owes to the fact that it spends a large proportion of public funds on health, this being a somewhat peculiar barometer of “fairness.”

Accountable to no one, the WHO is a bureaucratic behemoth. Its constitution goes beyond the eradication of disease — the traditional public-health mandate. Rather, it encompasses the utopian state of “complete physical, mental and social well-being.”

This fuzzy portfolio, when combined with an army of researchers with vast budgets, can produce a never-ending litany of scare stories for journalists. The WHO report on obesity published last year is typical. “Among women, over half (53%) of all deaths can be directly or indirectly related to their obesity,” it found. By using the slippery words, “indirectly,” the WHO lumped together cases of bad eating habits with severe, life-threatening obesity — thus trivializing an important public-health issue.

In 1996, the WHO published a report on the number of child deaths in Iraq since August 1990 (the invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the embargo). It conducted no independent study of its own, and relied only on figures from the Iraqi regime to establish that the excessive death toll among children under five was 4,500 per month, all as a direct result of the embargo.

These numbers have been repeated by media around the world. Yet the only independent study of child mortality in Iraq — by an epidemiologist and statistician, Dr. Richard Garfield of Columbia University — reduced the figure to about 1,850 per month. Even these figures can be misleading if used to suggest that sanctions alone, and not the regime of Saddam Hussein, is the “cause” of those deaths.

None of this is meant to tarnish much of the noble work of the WHO in the developing world. The WHO has long been involved in projects to develop safe drinking-water supplies and sanitation. To help combat malaria, which causes more than one million deaths each year, mostly in Africa, the WHO has launched a partnership of governments and development agencies to cut the burden of the illness in half by 2010.

When the WHO focuses on things like clean drinking water, as opposed to issuing seatbelt warnings and tendentious briefs against cell-phones, it generally performs well. And yet, its botching of the SARS outbreak in Toronto will end up damaging its credibility in its disease-eradication efforts. Journalists should be wary. Just because a study or pronouncement carries the imprimatur of the WHO should not mean it is sacrosanct.

Neil Seeman is director of the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service, a program of the Fraser Institute, an economic and public-policy think tank in Toronto.

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