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WHO summit: Partnerships urged to tackle health problems

The annual general assembly of the World Health Organisation is currently taking place in Geneva, with Switzerland among the countries urging United Nations agencies to co-ordinate their actions to more effectively combat AIDS.

"The emphasis at this assembly should be on an improvement in the relationship between the WHO and UNAIDS to allow them to act more effectively," said Reto Durler, head of international relations at the Swiss Federal Health Office.

The question of a partnership between industry, governments, and UN agencies is one of the recurring themes at the assembly, and one that is supported by the WHO director general, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

"We have seen how governments and development partners are finding new and creative solutions to really difficult problems. There is immense good will," she said in her speech to the assembly.

Despite the apparent contradiction in the goals of industry and the needs of the developing world, there is a trend towards partnerships. Last week, five big pharmaceutical companies, including the Swiss firm, Roche, announced they would help to improve access to anti-AIDS medication in the developing world.

"The moves that have happened in the past few days are welcome, because they were badly needed," Brundtland said. "We cannot accept that important drugs - which have been discovered, produced and made available - can only be used by a fortunate few. We cannot accept that for the millions who need them most they might as well be on another planet."

The Swiss government has been active in trying to persuade these companies to make anti-AIDS drugs available to those in greatest need: "We are in a dialogue with these companies. We are trying to push the industry and it's probably not a coincidence that they made their joint declaration a few days before the World Health Assembly, because the message which comes from this forum is usually a strong one," Reto Durler told Swissinfo.

The Swiss delegation to the assembly is being led by the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss. While she will not be addressing the assembly itself, she is playing a prominent role in its committees, not least the one looking into the challenges being faced by western health services.

"These systems are different according to the country. But they share some of the same problems," Durler said, "such as the ageing population and rising costs."

He said Dreifuss would be telling her counterparts about the federal government's attempts to improve its contacts with the cantonal authorities, which are responsible for health services, and its plans to set up a health observatory database which will be made available to all those involved in the health sector.

by Roy Probert

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