What Is WHO Doing?

The World Health Organization reported last week that 5,500 children die every day from consumption of food and water contaminated with bacteria.

So why is the WHO worrying about obesity, French fries, cell phones, "economy class syndrome" and — worst of all — augmenting its own bureaucratic sprawl?

The WHO report paints a shockingly bleak picture for millions of third-world children: 1.3 million under the age of five die annually from diarrheal diseases caused by unsafe food and water; another 2.2 million die from respiratory infections caused or exacerbated by poor sanitation.

In activist parlance, this death toll equates to about 40 jumbo jets filled with kids crashing every day.

But the WHO seems unduly mired in imaginary and low priority health concerns.

At this week's WHO-sponsored meeting in New York City on children's welfare, the WHO opted to focus on the dubious issue of childhood obesity, claiming that 22 million of the world's children under age five are overweight or obese.

Assuming for argument's sake that the claim is true and that childhood obesity represents some sort of real down-the-road health threat — two very big assumptions — the problem would seem to be somewhat less important than the thousands of children who will actually die today from largely preventable causes.

Public health professionals do have, after all, the resources and technology necessary to manage bacterial contamination.

Three weeks ago, the WHO's big worry was high-carbohydrate foods cooked at high temperatures, such as bread and potato products. Following a wacky allegation from Sweden that baking and frying starchy foods produces the supposedly cancer-causing substance acrylamide, the WHO announced in a press release that it would hold an "urgent expert consultation" on the findings.

It's not clear what's so urgent about acrylamide as opposed to the third world's bacterial problem. French fries, potato chips and croissants certainly won't be killing anyone today.

The WHO oversees a multimillion-dollar research program on the potential hazards of cell phone use — despite the fact that the head of the WHO's oversight program acknowledges there are no data indicating that cell phone use poses any health risk at all.

The WHO's wackiness over imaginary health problems is crowned by WHO chief Gro Harlem Brundtland, who told a Norwegian newspaper that she gets headaches from talking on a cell phone and — get this — requests people within 12 feet of her to turn their phones off in order not to cause her discomfort.

The WHO is also curiously distracted by the potential for air travelers to suffer blood clots in their legs, called "deep vein thrombosis." This public health "crisis" may, if even true, afflict as many as several in 100,000 long-haul (more than 3,000 miles) air travelers. Air travel-associated DVT is such a problem that it escaped notice until the last several years.

Aside from these and other bizarre concerns, the WHO isn't above placing its own agenda ahead of children's health.

An epidemic of cholera broke out in Peru in 1991, striking about 300,000 adults and children. At the time, the U.S. Army had stockpiled 400,000 doses of a cholera vaccine, demonstrated to be 85 percent effective at protecting all age groups against all different kinds of cholera.

The Army wanted to send the vaccine to Peru. Curiously, the WHO rejected the offer. Ten thousand died in the epidemic.

The WHO again refused an offer of the vaccine when cholera broke out in Rwanda. Forty-five thousand people died there in one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recorded history.

Although the WHO says the rejections were due to its uncertainty of the vaccine's efficacy, the real reason is much more sinister.

The WHO wants to improve sanitation systems in the third world — a sensible long-term goal. But WHO officials admitted to CBS' 60 Minutes in 1994 that the Army's cholera vaccine would interfere with those efforts.

That is, the quick, inexpensive and life-saving fix might reduce the need for the slow, costly and bureaucracy-saving fix.

Third-world children who die every day from largely avoidable causes don't benefit from the WHO's dopey distractions and bureaucratic entropy. They need basic public health measures now.

If the WHO can't do anything about this ongoing tragedy, it should hand its $2.2 billion annual budget to an organization that can.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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