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Swiss set out stall at World Health Assembly

The annual World Health Assembly has opened in Geneva, with issues like breastfeeding, HIV/Aids and mental health high on the agenda. The Swiss delegation will be highlighting the importance of public health in economic development.

This content was published on May 14, 2001 - 15:14

"Along with education, health is one of the most important resources a country has for economic growth," says Thomas Zeltner, head of the federal public health office, stressing one of the underlying principles of the Swiss delegation.

"The link between ill health and poverty is clear. Health should be high on the agenda of sustainable development," he told swissinfo.

Switzerland has been part of the World Health Organisation's Executive Council, which has been preparing the agenda and setting the priorities for the assembly, which runs until May 22.

Zeltner says the priorities which have been set out for the next two years have met with Swiss approval, in particular the WHO's efforts in the field of HIV/Aids and breastfeeding and infant nutrition.

Ironically, these are two areas in which Swiss-owned multinationals could be accused of exacerbating the problems. The Basel-based pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Roche, were among 39 firms which recently challenged the South African government over its attempt to import cheap generic drugs to combat HIV and Aids.

And Nestlé, the world's biggest food manufacturer, has frequently been accused of ignoring guidelines for the marketing of baby milk formula in developing countries. The WHO estimates that 1.5 million infants die every year because they are not breastfed.

"I think things are improving," Zeltner says. "I am hopeful that we can find a compromise between the interests of the multinationals and public health."

He says the Swiss government has been lobbying these companies to persuade them to accept their social obligations: "We have been in discussions with Nestlé for years. I think - at least I hope - that their changing stance has come about as a result of being confronted with other positions, not least the public health perspective."

The Swiss are less optimistic about another burning health issue, and one which the WHO Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, has made into a personal crusade: smoking.

A conference in Geneva earlier this month on an international tobacco control treaty ended without agreement. Anti-smoking activists accused some countries, including the United States, of putting the interests of the tobacco companies before public health. The talks were also hobbled by the fact that countries put forward conflicting proposals, without actually negotiating.

"It's difficult to see how - from the hundreds of different positions - we can come up with a muscled agreement that meets with the approval of every country," Zeltner says.

The Swiss delegation is being led by the Interior Minister, Ruth Dreifuss, although she will not stay for the entire conference.

As well as meeting a number of European health ministers, she will attend roundtable discussions on mental health, which was the theme of last month's World Health Day.

"Mental health is a topic that is very dear to Mrs Dreifuss, because it is a very serious issue here in Switzerland," Zeltner says.

"The physical health of Swiss people is much better than their mental health," he points out, adding that depression, suicides, substance abuse and other symptoms of mental health problems are worryingly high.

The WHO is predicting a big rise in the number of mental and neurological disorders and says most of its member states are ill-equipped and unprepared to cope. It says 43 per cent of countries have no mental health policy at all, 23 per cent have no legislation on mental health, and in 41 per cent, treatment of severe mental disorders is unavailable in primary health care.

Among the other issues being addressed in Geneva over the coming week are the effects of depleted uranium, leprosy, and polio eradication.

by Roy Probert

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