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01/04/2002
Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities
Minneapolis
-St. Paul
METRO 14A
(Copyright 2002)

Health breeds wealth ; To save the poor, heal the sick

Want to save lives? Millions of them? Easily done.

So say 18 of the world's wisest economists and health experts, authors of a new report from the World Health Organization. All it would take to save many of the world's poor, the group says, is to pay attention to the diseases that most often kill them.

Paying attention of course means paying money. But if the world's rich countries spent just an extra one-tenth of 1 percent of their wealth on health aid, the experts say, they could save 8 million lives a year.

This news comes from the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, convened by WHO to find ways to narrow the gap between rich and poor nations. But instead of mulling just about wealth, the commission zeroed in on health.

Their analysis illuminates an oft-neglected truth about Third World poverty: Many people are poor just because they're sick. They're so hobbled by malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and other diseases that they can't lift a finger or earn a dime. They haven't the energy to make a life, let alone a living.

Their prospects would brighten immediately if only they could get well. But recovery isn't possible, because poor nations can't afford even basic health care. They lack the money to invest in vaccination, treatment and epidemic control. They'd need many billions of dollars to run such programs.

Why not just give them the billions? The proposition is less outlandish than it sounds - and, over the long haul, less expensive. Much of the death in poor countries is caused by just a few health conditions that can easily be treated or averted. If those conditions were habitually addressed, people who now die would live.

In fact, they'd do more than just live. They'd prosper, and their countries would prosper along with them.

That, more or less, is what the WHO commission concludes - though it backs up the claim with numbers. According to the report, doubling annual spending on health in poor countries would generate a six fold payoff in economic gains by 2020. The commission recommends that the increased investment be shared by all nations, but asks most of the richest: The United States, it says, should hike its spending on global health tenfold - to $10 billion a year.

Given America's habitual antipathy to foreign aid, that number will likely stick in the congressional craw. But it shouldn't. The United States remains the stingiest well-off nation on the planet - ranking dead last among aid-givers. Americans could certainly stand to give the world's poorest and sickest an extra penny from every $10 they earn.

And once they understand that the extra penny will save 8 million lives a year - and give struggling countries a shot at prosperity - surely they'll insist on giving."


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