In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Open letter to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the World Health Organisation Director General Dr Margaret Chan

Posted by seumasach on October 2, 2011


Open letter to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the World Health Organization Director General Dr Margaret Chan

September 5th, 2011

Dear United Nations Secretary General,

Dear World Health Organization Director General,

We welcome the joint initiative by the United Nations and the World Health Organization to host a

high-level expert committee meeting on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases,

with a specific focus on the poorest countries of the world, during the UN General Assembly Session

to be held in New York on the 19th and 20th September, 2011. We welcome the recognition by Heads

of States of the seriousness of this global threat for all populations worldwide, assessed in the

following terms:

– Non-communicable diseases account for over 63% of deaths in the world and further

increases are expected, in particular in the African region;

– 29% of these deaths concern people under 60 years of age, living in low-and-middle income


We deem it legitimate to qualify, as you did, this global trend of “epidemics” and “imminent

catastrophe, a catastrophe for health, society and all the more for national economies”. We share

the analysis that non-communicable diseases can no more be considered only as a medical or public

health issue but are closely connected to development policies and raise political concerns. We know

that the prevention of these diseases can be done at two levels: individual and collective. Therefore,

Governments of countries of the world have an ethical responsibility to act to prevent part of these

diseases. We support the recommendations of limiting tobacco use and of a healthy diet, low in

refined sugars, saturated fats and salt and we cannot accept that economic interests undermine the

efforts of the international health community to help populations change behaviors in a responsible


We consider it necessary for global health of the world population to also consider some other non-

communicable diseases as well as other exposures, beyond the ones which are amenable to

behavioral interventions. Namely, we call for the inclusion in the UN resolution of neurologic and

psychiatric disorders as well as reproductive problems, in addition to cancers, diabetes, cardio-

cerebro-vascular and respiratory diseases, as they do represent a significant share of the morbidity

and are influenced by environmental risk factors. We also urge for a serious consideration when

dealing with occupational factors of disease, of the issues of child labor as well as the specificity of

women in the work force, in terms of sensitivity to potential toxics during reproductive years while

also keeping in mind the issue of equal men treatment and pay at a comparable position and with

similar education, training and experience.

Among the risk factors to be considered, the physico-chemical pollution of air, water, food, soil and

objects of daily living is of major concern. This corresponds to the presence in our general,

occupational and domestic living environment of carcinogens, teratogens, endocrine disruptors and

other toxic agents, ranging from indoor and outdoor air pollution, poor quality drinking water, food

supply contaminated by pesticide and medicinal drug residues to exposures at the workplace, in

particular in countries with no occupational medicine, industrial hygiene or any  other form of worker

protection, and with frequent legal or illegal child labor. We are concerned about the effects of these

chemical and physical (ionizing and non-ionizing radiations, such as EMF emitted by cell phones)

agents in the population as a whole, but even more so among susceptible groups, such as women of

reproductive age, children and disadvantaged individuals. The only effective way to protect the world

population is to act at a global level, in particular through legislation at the national level and a

framework convention at the international one.

The text of the UN Resolution needs to make clear statements and propositions such as the ones

unanimously adopted during one of the preparatory meetings in Asturias which listed, among others

the following key recommendations:

“1. Prevention of the environmental and occupational exposures that cause cancer must be an

integral component of cancer control worldwide. Such prevention will require strong collaboration

across sectors … and among countries, and also with civil society and the media.”


“4.  All countries to adopt and enforce legislation for protection of populations, especially the most

vulnerable populations, against environmental and occupational cancers.”


“6. Corporations to comply with all rules and regulations for prevention of environmental and

occupational cancers and to use the same protective measures in all countries, developed and

developing, in which they operate.”

These measures if they are implemented will have a much larger impact than the one on cancer. In

fact, many carcinogens are also reproductive hazards or just simply toxic for several organs in

humans (brain, kidney, liver, etc.). By removing them from our environment or at a minimum limiting

exposure to them, we can significantly contribute to making the children of today and future

generations healthier.

We kindly request you to consequently complete the list of diseases and priority risk factors to reflect

up to date scientific evidence and demonstrate the care Governments take of the health of their

populations, being audacious enough to put the health of all ahead of the wealth of the few.

Yours sincerely,

This letter is signed by individual scientists and health professionals from many institutions around

the globe. Their work affiliation is given for information of the readers and for identification purposes,

but this should not be considered as any form of endorsement of the universities, research centers

and other organizations which names appear on the following list. For members of non governmental

organisations involved in the health and/or environment fields, name of an individual was most often

a reflection of an official endorsement by the NGO, but this was not systematic.

One Response to “Open letter to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the World Health Organisation Director General Dr Margaret Chan”

  1. In reading the summary of interventions and the outcome of the expert meeting as reported in the media, it is shocking to note that the concerns expressed in the Open Letter were not taken into account. Led by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is subject to powerful lobbying by industry, governments agreed that the prevention and control of the four main non-communicable diseases (NCDs): diabetes, heart disease and stroke, chronic respiratory disease and cancer which together kill some 36 million persons annually, lay in reducing tobacco and alcohol use and ensuring a healthier diet and more physical activity.

    The expert meeting was held in part over concerns about the economic toll of the 36 million annual deaths (29% are persons under age 60) due to the four leading chronic diseases plus mental illness, estimated to be $47 trillion over the next 20 years.

    Representatives of citizen groups concerned about NCDs and related illnesses also attended, including those who feared a deluge of mental illness; those seeking to immunize women against cancer of the cervix; those frightened by the bleak and expanding horizon of dementia (Alzheimer disease accounts for more than half of dementia cases); and those who clearly see the human rights and equity concerns created by these diseases as they occur most frequently among the poor.

    The Open letter, which was signed by hundreds of health professionals from 35 countries, calls for the UN and WHO to consider the inclusion of other diseases and risk factors, and to “put the health of all above the wealth of the few”:

    – include psychiatric and neurological diseases and reproductive problems
    – include risk factors reflecting up-to-date scientific evidence (carcinogens, teratogens, endocrine disruptors and other toxic agents, ranging from indoor and outdoor air pollution, poor quality drinking water, a food supply contaminated by pesticide and medicinal drug residues, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation such as electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones)
    – demonstrate the care Governments take of the health of their populations (of workers through occupational medicine, industrial hygiene, banning legal and illegal child labor, and of susceptible groups such as women of reproductive age, children and disadvantaged individuals)
    – “being audacious enough to put the health of all ahead of the wealth of the few” (meaning – this is my interpretation and not openly expressed in the letter: Governments defying the powerful lobbies and taking stricter environmental regulatory measures to reduce toxic exposure and halt the greed of powerful corporations which place wealth ahead of the health of our children and future generations).

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