Global health forum tackles infectious diseases

Most malaria victims are young children in Africa Keystone

Health experts from around the world have met in Switzerland to discuss global efforts to fight diseases including tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and malaria.

This content was published on March 24, 2006 - 20:12

The seminar was held on Friday - World Tuberculosis Day - at a time when there are more health initiatives and public-private partnerships than ever before.

A third of the 40 million people living with HIV/Aids worldwide are estimated to be also infected with tuberculosis, or TB. TB kills up to half of all Aids patients worldwide.

Malaria kills an estimated 1.3 million people a year – most of them young children in Africa.

Switzerland was one of the first countries on the global health scene, supporting in the early 1990s several initiatives: the global forum for health research, the council on health research and development, and the medicine for malaria venture.

"These initiatives were quickly identified as 'things to do' which the World Health Organization or the existing institutions were not doing," said Jacques Martin, a foreign ministry official who attended the seminar organised by the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel.

"Switzerland was there when ideas were in the making and was able to have an influence on the eventual strategy," he told swissinfo.

Swiss caution

From the campaign against bird flu to the Global Fund, there have never been so many international health initiatives – a fact that Martin says evokes mixed feelings in Switzerland.

The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria - a UN-related financing organisation - is one of the biggest, and Martin was one of 40 people who met in Brussels in 2001 to discuss its foundation in 2002.

"Switzerland was basically against the creation of new institutions because this mushrooming is a pain to follow for a small country with a limited [budget]," he said.

"So we went [to Brussels] to make sure at least that if something were created it would not be a white elephant."

Switzerland eventually came out in favour of the Global Fund and made an initial $10 million (SFr13.1 million) contribution spread over three years.

"We are a modest donor but we are involved and on the board," Martin said, adding that the Global Fund is managed by a secretariat based in Geneva.

Challenges

Martin says the main challenges in the most seriously affected countries are simply developing health systems and making sure that global health initiatives there do not disrupt existing systems.

"These countries are so poor and so badly equipped in terms of health systems."

He adds that the approach there is also very much disease-by-disease. "So today the health centre might deal with malaria because it's malaria week or whatever, and then another day most of the drugs will be for HIV/Aids, and if you're a pregnant mother you may not receive proper attention."

Martin says progress is being made, but the number of people involved at a local level makes it important to coordinate efforts regarding tuberculosis and HIV/Aids and to work with local governments.

"It's difficult, but that is what this seminar is about."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

According to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis (TB) kills more young people and adults than any other infectious disease – 5,000 a day – and is the world's biggest killer of women.
The WHO estimates that 1.7 million people died from TB in 2004 – 90% of them in developing countries – and there were a total of 8.9 million new cases.
A third of the 40 million people living with HIV/Aids worldwide are estimated to be also infected with TB. TB kills up to half of all Aids patients worldwide.
Malaria kills an estimated 1.3 million people a year – most of them young children in Africa.
TB and malaria are both treatable.

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In brief

The Swiss Tropical Institute was founded in 1943 as a public organisation.

It is partially supported by the Swiss government and canton Basel City to contribute to the improvement of the health of populations internationally and nationally through research, services, and teaching and training.

The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis & Malaria was established in 2002 to improve global financing of interventions against the three pandemics.

It is a public-private partnership – supported by 150 staff in Geneva – that contributes to poverty reduction as part of the Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations.

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