G-8 to Focus on Health Care Issues

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With the G-8 countries meeting in Russia, health care is expected to play an important role in discussions. The host country has an enormous AIDS problem that most health experts consider out of control. There is little spending on prevention or treatment.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As host of this weekend's G-8 summit, Russian President Putin has placed global health high on the agenda. Topics likely to be discussed include the threat posed by infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and bird flu. Last year, the G-8 countries made commitments to fund health initiatives, promises that have not been kept so far. Still, health advocates keep adding to their wish list, as NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON reporting:

So far, the promise of universal access to AIDS treatment by 2010 made at last year's G-8 remains a promise. Only the U.S. and Russia have contributed. The global fund to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria is still short of case.

But Winston Zulu, of Zambia, the southern African representative to the group TB Alert, has high hopes that the G-8 can do for tuberculosis what it's done for AIDS.

Mr. WINSTON ZULU (Southern African Representative, TB Alert): In Zambia, about two years ago, we had less than 1,000 people on antiretroviral treatment. Now we have more than 50,000 - in fact, 52,000 people in two years. That's like the kind of scale up. So these are things that the G-8 can do and can see results.

WILSON: And while AIDS kills millions of people around the world each year, tuberculosis comes close behind, something Zulu knows personally.

Mr. ZULU: I lost two brothers in 1990 from tuberculosis, and in 1996, I lost Chandrik(ph). Three years ago I lost Dan(ph) from tuberculosis. All these people are said to have died of AIDS just because they didn't have TB drugs.

Of course, when you get cured of TB, it doesn't solve your HIV problem, but it keeps you alive, and so I'm just imagining that the people at the G-8 meeting who are there discussing infectious diseases, sometimes they forget that TB's the biggest killer of people living with AIDS.

BLOCK: Tuberculosis is just one of the many health problems that Russia is confronting and one of the reasons President Vladimir Putin has put health on the agenda in St. Petersburg. The World Health Organization's representative to the region, Dr. Wieslaw Jakubowiak, says Russia's health system is now having to deal with years of decline.

Dr. WIESLAW JAKUBOWIAK (TB World Programme Coordinator, World Health Organization): TB increase rapidly, sometimes two or three times, but another reason is multi-drug resistance, where we are facing situations where the bacteria is resistant against two major drugs. This situation creates now problem financial, because cost of the drug is rising from $2,000 to $10,000

BLOCK: WHO is pushing a $56 billion stop-TB plan that would fund research to develop new medicines and improve treatment. Jakubowiak thinks new money is unlikely, but he's hoping the G-8 will at least endorse the plan.

The G-8's record on health can be confusing. It was the Okinawa Summit in 2000 that led to the creation of the global fund to fight AIDS, which has since then had to beg for money from G-8 members and other donors.

Professor John Curtin(ph), of the University of Toronto, has analyzed the role of health at these global summits. He says it's the easiest issue on which to reach a consensus, but this is the first time public health has been made a priority.

Professor JOHN CURTIN (Professor, University of Toronto): It's probably to the credit of this year's G-8 that the leaders have resisted the temptation to say oh, you know, we didn't do a particularly good job on that last year. Let's not even address the subject this year. But the Russian hosts did exactly the opposite. They've stuck with the issue. They've come back to the really hard cases at the center: HIV/AIDS.

BLOCK: Curtin expects G-8 countries to honor their commitments to the global fund, to universal access to AIDS treatment, and to eradicate polio. But it's another emerging threat driving the G-8's focus on health, Curtin says: bird flu.

Prof. CURTIN: So it's a common global problem, and the world knows that the response of the old, established, multi-lateral institutions, the World Health Organization, are simply ineffective, this in a world where the WHO has fewer dollars at its disposal to deal with the full range of global health problems than does the Bill Gates Foundation.

BLOCK: And this year, Curtin says, Russia wants to be seen as holding its own, sitting at the table with the rest of the G-8 as a donor nation, not a debtor. Brenda Wilson, NPR News, Washington.

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