One of the key roles of the World Health Organization is to shape the research agenda and to provide leadership on critical matters (WHO). How can the WHO do so if their research is unreliable? Another core function is to articulate ethical and evidence-based policy options (WHO). If the statistics that the WHO provides is wrong, how affective can these policies be? I don’t think many people ever question the WHO’s legitimacy but in February, a large reason to do so surfaced (NY Times, 2012).
It is fundamental in public health when discussing an epidemic to identify the magnitude of the incidence, prevalence and burden of the disease. In February, malaria specialists began to argue about the true number of malaria deaths in 2010. It was not a small margin of possible error. The number was possibly wrong by twice the amount. Any public health professional sees the problem with this, and the World Health Organization was caught directly in the middle. This debate began when a study published in The Lancet said the official WHO estimate of 655,000 deaths from malaria was far too low (NY Times, 2012). The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, whose purpose is to analyze global trends, stated that the malaria mortality burden is larger than previously estimated, especially in adults (The Lancet, 2012).
Debates like these in the field are detrimental to everyone involved, especially those poorer countries who rely on international assistance for dealing with malaria. . Most importantly, with uncertainty presented to the public through media, there is a risk of decreased trust in our international organizations. With significantly large international endeavors underway, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end world poverty, it is not a good time for the public to loose trust in our world leaders.
The United Nations special envoy for malaria, Raymond Chambers, reacted to The Lancet article stating that if 1.2 million deaths is correct, more drugs and diagnostic kits may be needed “but we’re already facing a funding gap of several billion dollars” (NY Times, 2012). Further fueling talks of international aid is the recent issue of malaria in Myanmar, a country that bears the largest malaria burden in the region. The spread of artemisinin resistance is a threat particularly to this entire region because of its position between India and Africa. How the international community responds to malaria in Myanmar is crucial. The Myanmar government, in cooperation with WHO and other partners, has developed a plan to contain artemisinin resistance (NY Times, 2012). Yet, out of all the international approval, little aid has been presented. The aid being discussed is a small amount compared to aid given to other countries with significantly more development and right now, Myanmar could be the difference between hundreds of thousands of deaths due to malaria.
The international system needs to focus aid where it is needed the most. World leaders’ approach to the malaria issue in Myanmar will be the difference between malaria eradication or malaria spreading. Nations across the globe, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, need to collect reliable statistics in order to continue to focus aid in the most cost-effective manners. Global health depends on it.
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