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WHO in crisis talks over diet strategy

By
JOHN ZAROCOSTAS, United Press International

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 19 (UPI) -- Top World Health Organization officials have launched a diplomatic blitz to try to avert the collapse of a draft global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, because of objections by Brazil, Cuba and sub-Saharan African nations, senior health diplomats told United Press International.

Dr. Lee Jong-wook, WHO's director general, as well as senior members of his staff, are holding round-the-clock, bilateral talks with key national delegations in a bid to iron out differences and secure passage of the crisis-riddled strategy, which has been more than two years in the making, the same sources said.

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"The WHO secretariat (is) very concerned," a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity, told UPI.

On Sunday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, when asked by reporters about the chances for the strategy, replied, "I think it will pass."

Last January, the Bush administration slammed an earlier version of the strategy, but welcomed a new draft that was circulated in April. The thrust of this version recommends people limit their consumption of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and includes policy suggestions on taxation and other fiscal strategies to encourage healthy eating.

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The draft also contains sections on marketing, advertising sponsorship and promotion, labeling and a warning against policies that exploit children's inexperience or credulity.

New proposed changes, floated in the past couple of days by Brazil and others, have changed the atmosphere. They are seen by some health officials as attempts to dilute the politically and delicately balanced draft strategy.

Brazil's suggestions include changes to language on limits for fats and sugars to "respect the appropriate limits," removal of references to agriculture policies and replacement with references to public policies, and acknowledgment that "polices to be adopted will be (World Trade Organization) consistent."

Senior Latin American diplomats close to Havana say Cuba also intends to propose similar changes along the lines of Brazil -- with some emphasis on malnutrition.

A senior Brazilian official said the proposed changes "reflect our concerns" but he was adamant his country "is totally in favor of the strategy." He added Brazil, which also is coordinating the G77 group of developing countries, does not want the strategy to become confrontational or politicized.

If possible, Brazil wants to negotiate "some very focused changes to the text," he said.

"It spells an awful lot of trouble," said the anonymous senior U.S. official, who added the negotiating process could be "tough."

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"It's difficult to negotiate amendments in three days," he said.

Health ministers and senior officials from 192 countries are slated to begin debate on the draft strategy Wednesday afternoon and decide whether to vote for its adoption over the next three days.

The U.S. official also said it would be "a missed opportunity" if no strategy emerges from the conference.

"It seems to be the strategy is unraveling," W. Phillip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, told reporters.

Philip Poole-Wilson, president of the World Health Federation, said in a statement the WHO global strategy "is an excellent first step" to curtail the chronic obesity epidemic. He said the federation considers it crucial that the World Health Assembly adopt the strategy.

"You can't hold the world's public health for ransom for the sake of a few economies," Poole-Wilson told UPI.

The focus, he said, should now be on how to proceed to implement the strategy.

Powerful Trans-Atlantic food industry groups also came out in support of the beleaguered WHO strategy on Tuesday.

A joint task force of the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union voiced their support in a statement that said it was "an important step in improving nutrition, promoting physical activity and combating obesity worldwide."

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The task force chief, who has been holding meetings on the sidelines with health ministers, said many health ministers from poor nations -- in particular from Africa -- cautioned that public diet policy and diseases such as diabetes are problems of the "affluent world" and not the same when compared against the agonies of malnutrition and HIV faced by the world's poorer nations.

"Our biggest problems are infectious diseases such as malaria and (tuberculosis)," Nicholas Mann, health policy secretary of Papua New Guinea told UPI. "Diet is not a top priority."

Although there is strong support in North America and Western Europe for the draft strategy, many now see it as a "North-South divide," James said, and added if it went to a vote now "the strategy would lose. "

Still, some health diplomats noted many developing countries are supportive of the text.

"We can live with it, but we can understand (poor countries') concerns," Sha Zukang, China's ambassador, told UPI.

Asian diplomatic sources close to New Delhi said India also can accept the present text.

James stressed, however, the health of the developing world is deteriorating faster than in the developed world and poor nations could incur a bigger health handicap in the long term.

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"The world needs to be put on high alert," James said.

Nevertheless, negotiators have been seeking various diplomatic options to try to secure passage and avert the draft strategy being delayed for consideration by one year.

"We don't want (the strategy) to become a meaningless document," one senior health official said.

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John Zarocostas covers the World Health Organization for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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