October 21, 2008 / 2:13 PM / 10 years ago

Health cutbacks in crisis would be mistake: WHO

GENEVA (Reuters) - Governments should resist the temptation to cut their health budgets in response to a global financial crisis, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

A Ugandan health worker immunises a child October 1, 2008 in Moroto district, 561 km (336 miles) north-east of capital Kampala. REUTERS/James Akena

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said steps to repair the economy should not only focus on rekindling trade and business growth but also on fighting poverty, misery and ill-health.

She told the Graduate Institute in Geneva that the credit crisis, paired with global warming and other pressures, stood to have “profound, and profoundly unfair” consequences for medical care, and particular efforts to confront and prevent disease.

Cutbacks to national health budgets during previous economic crises, such as the oil shock and global recession seen 30 years ago, have caused serious problems in poorer parts of the world, said Chan, a former Hong Kong health director.

“Huge mistakes were made in the restructuring of national budgets. Health throughout sub-Saharan Africa and in large parts of Latin America and Asia has still not recovered from these mistakes,” she said.

“There is too much at stake right now in our turbulent and tottering world to make the same mistakes again.”

The credit crisis and fears of a recession have overshadowed health care in the U.S. presidential race, and raised questions about whether Democratic candidate Barack Obama will be able to push through his health care reforms.

An adviser to John McCain said this week that financial turmoil had “thrown a wrench” into the Republican presidential candidate’s plans to balance the U.S. budget in his first term, potentially crimping foreign aid and other spending plans.

Companies including Pfizer Inc have also said they expect that economic slowdown could affect investments in the medical sector and in pharmaceuticals.

Chan said it was essential that governments avoid putting health care on the backburner, stressing that healthy populations would help reinforce economies in tough times.

“Health is the very foundation of economic productivity and prosperity,” she said.

Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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