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Time for Congress to get serious about WHO's excesses
By James K. Glassman
Scripps Howard News Service

April 04, 2005

Paul Volcker's report last week on the oil-for-food scandal uncovered shocking incompetence and venality at the United Nations. But if Congress really wants to reform the agency, the place to start is the World Health Organization (WHO), which, in the latest absurdity, has embarked on a campaign to drive baby formula underground - and, eventually, off the face of the earth. The big losers if the WHO is successful will, of course, be the world's poor - the same victims of WHO blunders in fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria.

With AIDS, the WHO got a black eye for placing 18 Indian-made ripoff medicines on its list of approved drugs. Those medicines turned out to be uncertified copies of the patented HIV drugs from which they were copied.

With malaria, the WHO has refused to encourage the use of DDT and other proven insecticides and has engaged in what a group of scientists, writing in The Lancet, called "medical malpractice" in its use of a poor regime of anti-malarial drugs.

A U.N. agency that was set up in 1948, the WHO, more and more, has come under the influence of radical health and environmental activists, who push a bitterly anti-enterprise ideology.

Congress should insist that the WHO stick to the basics. Instead, having botched campaigns against the two worst epidemics in the world, the WHO, incredibly, is focusing its attention on the bottle-feeding of infants.

You probably remember the infant-formula imbroglio - a real blast from the left-wing past. Promoters of breast-feeding managed to smear the use of healthy formula to nourish babies and discourage marketing of bottle-feeding products.

Now, breasts are back.

In January, the WHO recommended the adoption of an extreme anti-bottle-feeding resolution at the 57th World Health Assembly - the WHO's annual meeting, set for mid-May in Geneva. The immediate objective of the resolution is to force infant-formula packages to carry warning labels akin to those on cigarettes or liquor. The ultimate goal is to scare mothers into abandoning bottle-feeding.

There's a deep irony here. The WHO wants to discourage the use of baby formula, whose efficacy and safety have been established over many decades - while at the same time, the WHO has been approving untested anti-AIDS drugs.

Certainly, there is no questioning the benefits of breast-feeding. But many women lack the time or, in some cases, the health to feed their babies from their own breasts. For them, infant formula is an excellent substitute.

For example, if a woman wants to pursue an active career outside the home, breast-feeding is often impractical. Infant formula provides the freedom that many women want, and deserve. Trying to make formula anathema is to thrust such women back to the Dark Ages.

This question of choice for women is especially compelling in developing nations, where economies are beginning to draw females, as well as males, into the work force in key positions.

But radicals advocate a double standard for the poor - in feeding babies as well as in HIV therapy.

There's a correlation between high rates of infant-formula use and low rates of infant mortality. The reason is not that infant formula is better than breast milk, but that, as a country develops, infant health and nutrition improve, and the use of formula, at the same time, increases.

Nestle sells more infant formula in a healthy nation like Belgium than it does in all of Africa, which has 60 times Belgium's population. The best way to boost good health in Africa is to boost African economies. And time-saving technologies like infant formula can help.

This means that Africans should be able to choose, and not to be scared or shamed into breast-feeding. Radicals and their supporters at the WHO, however, want to keep African women, in effect, barefoot, denying them the choice, as they modernize, of a healthy, convenient product.

It's time for Congress to get serious about reining in the excesses of the WHO. Defeat this silly resolution in May and insist that the Geneva health bureaucrats concentrate on whipping AIDS and malaria with proven medicines, not on pleasing the ideologues.


James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and
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