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Sars and smoking dominate health meeting

Sars and curbing tobacco use are the main issues discussed at the annual WHO assembly Keystone

The fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and the adoption of a treaty on curbing tobacco use are topping the agenda at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

The Assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO) and meets annually.

“We meet as we fight to defeat Sars… the first new epidemic of the 21st century,” the outgoing head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Gro Harlem Brundtland, told delegates at the start of the meeting on Monday.

“Later this week, we will take a giant step to reverse what could otherwise turn out to be the biggest killer for our grandchildren… tobacco smoking,” she added.

Infectious diseases

The head of international affairs at the Swiss Federal Health Office, Gaudenz Silberschmidt, hopes that the Sars issue will underscore the need for international regulations to deal with new infectious diseases.

He insists that the talks should not be overshadowed by immediate concerns over the flu-like virus but should instead focus on improving the overall response to global health crises.

“We don’t think we should have a big thing on Sars now, because the work is going in the right direction,” Silberschmidt told swissinfo.

“We need to learn the lessons in order to improve collaboration on Sars but also to improve the system to be ready for similar such situations in the future.”

The WHO’s executive director of communicable diseases, David Heymann, agrees that governments worldwide must work together more closely in the fight against Sars and other emerging diseases, such as influenza.

“There will be more outbreaks like Sars that spread internationally,” Heymann said. “We’re almost certain influenza will occur in a global pandemic form… and many other diseases which we don’t even know about.”

Tobacco control

Another priority for the Swiss delegation at the meeting is the adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – an historic treaty aimed at reducing cancer and chronic heart disease.

The agreement, which was adopted on Wednesday, would limit the advertising, promotion, sale and smuggling of tobacco products.

The WHO estimates that tobacco kills almost five million people around the world each year – a figure that is expected to double over the next two decades.

Over 8,000 tobacco-related deaths are reported annually in Switzerland, which has one of the least stringent tobacco control regimes in the developed world and one of the highest rates of per capita tobacco consumption in Europe.

“We fully support the Convention and we will try our best to bring it through in Switzerland,” Silberschmidt said, but added that it would be up to parliament to decide whether to ratify the treaty.

He told swissinfo that the global pact would lend legitimacy to the WHO’s efforts to put health “at the top of the political agenda”.

His comments were echoed by Bruntland, who told the Assembly “billions of people in generations to come” would be healthier and would lead longer lives because of the treaty.

“We can do no more good for our children and future generations than to adopt the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control… and then see that it comes into force as soon as possible,” she said.

New chief

The 56th annual session of the Assembly will be the last for Bruntland, who is stepping down at the end of a five-year term in July.

The former Norwegian prime minister, who took on the big tobacco companies and supported moves to allow poor countries to get cheap generic drugs against diseases, has won praise for the WHO’s speedy response to Sars.

The election of Jong Wook Lee – a South Korean, who heads the WHO’s tuberculosis programme – is expected to be confirmed on Wednesday.

“He’s very knowledgeable about the organisation… and one can feel that he knows what he’s talking about,” said Silberschmidt.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

Health ministers and officials from the World Health Organization’s 192-member states are meeting in Geneva for the 56th annual session of the World Health Assembly.

The talks are expected to be dominated by the fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and the adoption of a global treaty aimed at curbing tobacco use.

Switzerland wants to highlight the need for international health regulations to better coordinate and deal with outbreaks of new diseases.

The Federal Health Office also supports the adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which aims to curb cancer and chronic heart disease by limiting the advertising, promotion, sale and smuggling of tobacco products.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR