The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently approved the widespread use of a new malaria vaccine developed by the University of Oxford. The vaccine is more than 75% effective. It has the potential to save millions of lives. Despite making few headlines, this is easily one of the most positive news stories of the year so far. Its positive effects will be felt for generations. It is an extraordinary public health success.
Unfortunately, future public health successes are under threat. There is a cabal of activists, both within and outside the WHO that is determined to drag it away from its core mission of tackling pandemics and communicable diseases like malaria and into an altogether murkier area of health where its track record is patchy, to say the least.
From alcohol and cigarettes to sugar and salt, there is a growing contingent within today’s public health sphere which argues the most pressing issues are social, not biological. Rather than pave the way for more amazing successes on viruses and vaccinations, lots of policymakers and medical experts seem more interested in promoting policies designed to change behaviour and eliminate vices like drinking and smoking.
The WHO therefore sometimes spends its time pushing for policies which trample over civil liberties in the name of public health, like sin taxes on sugar and harsh restrictions on alcohol. It leads to almost unbelievable statements from the WHO, such as the time it said women should not drink alcohol under any circumstances while ‘pregnancy age’. Is this kind of thing really a better use of the WHO’s resources than spending time on tackling preventable diseases?
The political nature of this area of public health debate also leads to virtue-signalling beating out evidence-based policymaking. Vaping, for example, is condemned along with smoking. That’s despite the fact that vaping is 95% healthier than smoking, and one of the very best tools for helping smokers quit.
If the WHO wants to eliminate cigarettes, it ought to support vaping. Instead, it adopts a puritanical stance in which vaping is just as bad as smoking because it contains nicotine. The WHO even doles out awards to politicians who crack down on vaping, despite the well-documented effects policies like that have, such as increasing smoking rates among young people by taking away the option to vape instead.
There are countless problems with this approach. This method of policymaking is riddled with flaws. There are endless research studies demonstrating that the policy approach favoured by these activists – taxing and banning social vices like alcohol out of existence – does not work. These policies increase the cost of living for the poorest households, exacerbating inequality in the process, and often provide a boon for the black-market trade in newly condemned products.
But perhaps most damningly of all, every penny spent on initiatives in these areas is a penny not spent on the things the WHO does best – like the malaria vaccine. We might never know how many more lives could have been saved by investing more in vaccines and preventable diseases and less in nanny-state politicking.
This month, November, is an important month for this cabal. A conference called COP10 will take place in Panama. COP10 is a ‘tobacco control’ conference in which influential leaders from the public health space around the world will gather to discuss how best to eliminate smoking and vaping – yes, both – around the world. Dissenting views are generally shut out of these conferences, leading to the false appearance of a unanimous endorsement of the medical community for a nanny-state approach to nicotine policy as scientific and helpful, even when the evidence suggests the opposite.
The World Health Organisation should stick to what it is good at. Its historical record on diseases like polio is incredible, and recent successes on issues like malaria shows there is still much more that can be done in this area. Another Covid-like pandemic could be around the corner, in which case we will need the WHO to be ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. It should abandon lobbying for failed nanny state policies and instead focus on areas like vaccines where it can make the most difference.