January 19, 2009 / 5:14 PM / in 10 years

Recession raises risks for mothers, babies: WHO

GENEVA (Reuters) - Global recession may lead many governments to reduce investment in basic healthcare, putting at risk the lives of vulnerable mothers and babies, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the world’s economic woes could set back huge public health campaigns meant to eliminate diseases, tackle the root causes of poverty and save the lives of mothers and babies.

The crisis will also make more people use public health services instead of private ones, adding to the demands on stretched public services.

“The crisis comes at a fragile time for public health ... Women and young children are among the first to be affected by a deterioration in financial circumstances and food availability,” Chan told a meeting at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters on the effects on health of the global financial turmoil.

The director-general raised concerns that “already vastly overstretched and underfunded” public health systems will fail to detect and treat conditions such as cancer and heart disease that are increasingly common in developing countries.

“In times of economic crisis, people tend to forego private care and make more use of publicly financed services,” Chan said, warning that many people will neglect their health if they cannot access the basic services they need.

“Less preventive care is particularly disturbing at a time when demographic aging and a rise in chronic diseases are global trends,” she added.

Efforts to safeguard healthcare funding in the crisis are expected to dominate the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly in May, where health ministers may also reassess the United Nations agency’s programs in the light of the financial malaise.

At a preparatory session for the assembly, the WHO’s 34 member executive board also agreed on Monday to discuss the health situation in Gaza, where Israel damaged hospitals and killed 1,300 Palestinians during its three-week offensive.

The WHO executive board will consider that question on Tuesday afternoon and may add the issue for consideration by the WHO’s full roster of 193 member states — including Israel — in May. The board’s preparatory session runs until January 27.

Reporting by Laura MacInnis, editing by Tim Pearce

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