WHO agrees code to stem health care worker exodus

GENEVA (Reuters) - Health ministers sealed a rare global accord Friday to avoid recruiting doctors and nurses from poor countries where there is an acute shortage of medical staff.

The voluntary code for World Health Organization members is only the second such accord in its history and follows six years of negotiations aimed at stemming the exodus of health care workers from around 60 of the world’s poorest countries.

“You reached agreement on some very important items that are a real gift to public health, everywhere. Thanks to some all night efforts, we now have a code of practice on the international recruitment of health personnel,” Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, told the closing session of the annual week-long ministerial meeting of the 193-member body.

The United States, largest recruiter of health care workers from other countries, voiced strong support for the voluntary code under which rich nations vow to uphold ethical principles and also support medical training in low-income areas.

“We recognize the critical shortage of trained health professionals in the world’s poorest countries ... and are committed to addressing that need,” said Nils Daulaire, director of global health affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who led the U.S. delegation to the Geneva talks.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates of both child and maternal mortality, has only 3 percent of the world’s health work force, the WHO says.

The pact was under negotiation since 2004, but the Obama administration took a softer line than the Bush administration, easing the way for compromise, according to Jean-Marc Braichet of WHO’s human resources for health department.

“It is only the WHO’s second voluntary code ever and required a lot of negotiation to reach consensus,” he told Reuters. The first WHO code of practices was an international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes, clinched in 1981.

Some 57 countries, 36 of them in Africa and the rest mainly in southeast Asia, lack skilled health workers, the WHO says.

Worldwide, there are 60 million health professionals -- including doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and laboratory technicians -- but another 4.2 million are sorely needed.

“Tens of thousands of health care personnel are recruited internationally each year,” Braichet said.

Industrialized countries, where aging populations require growing health services, recruit trained doctors, nurses and midwives from developing countries which lose precious resources after investing in their training.

The United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand are the largest recruiters of foreign health care workers, although there is also migration among poor countries, according to Braichet.

Editing by Charles Dick