• EDITORIAL

    Street sweeper meets health supremo

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    ITEM: Police said Mario Velasco was doing his job as a street sweeper in Manila’s Santa Cruz district on Saturday last week when he complained of shortness of breath. Arnold Tejada, a 55-year old vendor, said he saw the street sweeper pass out and die shortly from heat stroke, the Manila Police District said. Velasco, according to Tejada, had been suffering from tuberculosis, a preventable and curable disease. He was 57.

    Item: “The World Health Organization (WHO) routinely spends about $200 million a year on travel—far more than what it doles out to fight some of the biggest problems in public health including AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria,” a foreign news agency said in an exclusive report on Monday, citing internal documents that it had obtained.

    The WHO could have given the Philippines its fair share to help treat TB, but it could be that Velasco was not able to help himself with medicines for his ailment, the poor man’s disease, as it is referred to in the country.

    Or it could be that the Philippines is an “underachiever” in Asia in terms of access to and quality of health care for the treatment of preventable diseases, landing 120th out of 195 countries reviewed, a study published last week said.

    The Health Care Access and Quality Index, based on death rates for 32 diseases that can be avoided or effectively treated with proper medical care, also tracked progress in each nation compared to the benchmark year of 1990.

    Access to health care and quality of treatment for each disease in a country was scored on a scale of 0 to 100 (with the average score determining the country’s ranking). The Philippines tallied 52 out of 100.

    Diseases for which the country got particularly low scores, that is, for which there are higher than expected death rates, included chronic kidney disease (18 out of 100), leukemia (24 out of 100) and tuberculosis and peptic ulcer (32 out of 100 for both).

    After he was elected, President Donald Trump, according to the exclusive report, tweeted, “The UN [United Nations] has such great potential,” but had become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”

    The World Health Organization is the UN’s health agency.

    In 2016, according to the report, the WHO spent about $71 million on AIDS and hepatitis; $61 million on malaria; and $59 million on tuberculosis. “Still, some health programs do get exceptional funding—the agency spends about $450 million trying to wipe out polio every year.”

    The exclusive report said, “On a recent trip to Guinea, where WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan praised health workers in West Africa for triumphing over Ebola, Chan stayed in the biggest presidential suite at the Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry. The suite has an advertised price of 900 euros [$1,008] a night.” The agency said Chan’s overnight stay in Guinea cost the same as all other WHO travelers—212 euros—but declined to say who picked up the tab, noting only that her hotels are sometimes paid for by the host country. Chan is also alleged to “often” fly first class.

    Ian Smith, executive director of Chan’s office, said the chairman of the UN agency’s audit committee said the agency “often did little to stop misbehavior.”

    WHO staff, however, “are still openly ignoring the rules,” according to Smith.

    It is hoped that under a new director-general, the UN health agency would stick to the rules.

    On Tuesday, the WHO’s 194 members will have chosen in Geneva (the WHO is based in the Swiss city) from among three candidates to replace Chan, who is stepping down on June 30 after a decade on the job.

    Meanwhile, Mario Velasco will have been replaced by a new street sweeper.

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