• 18 MAY 09
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    #1062: Lancet criticized WHO for neglecting evidence in 2007

    Doing the rounds on EMF internet sites at the moment is an Associated Press release of May 7. Note however that it is from 2007 and so is not new news. Here is the press release as written in the
    International Journal of Health Services, Volume 37, Number 4, Pages 783–785, 2007.

    Also see related paper:

    https://www.emfacts.com/papers/who_conflict.pdf

    PRESS REPORT: WHO CRITICIZED FOR NEGLECTING EVIDENCE
    Maria Cheng

    A study published in The Lancet reveals that when developing “evidence-based” guidelines, the World Health Organization routinely forgets one key ingredient: evidence. The study is based on interviews with senior WHO officials and analyses of various guidelines to determine how they were produced. The authors found a distinctly non-transparent process. When developing “evidence-based” guidelines, the World Health Organization routinely forgets one key ingredient: evidence. That is the verdict from a study published in The Lancet online Tuesday [Lancet 369:1883–1889, 2007]. The medical journal’s criticism of WHO could shock many in the global health community, as one of WHO’s main jobs is to produce guidelines on everything from fighting the spread of bird flu and malaria control to enacting anti-tobacco legislation. “This is a pretty seismic event,” said Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton, who was not involved in the research for the article. “It undermines the very purpose of WHO.” The study was conducted by Dr. Andrew Oxman and Dr. Atle Fretheim, of the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Health Services, and Dr. John Lavis at McMaster University in Canada. They interviewed senior WHO officials and analyzed various guidelines to determine how they were produced. What they found was a distinctly non-transparent process. “It’s difficult to judge how much confidence you can have in WHO guidelines if you’re not told how they were developed,” Oxman said. “In that case, you’re left with blind trust.” WHO issues about 200 sets of recommendations every year, acting as a public health arbiter to the global community by sifting through competing scientific theories and studies to put forth the best policies.

    WHO’s Director of Research Policy Dr. Tikki Pang said that some of his WHO colleagues were shocked by The Lancet’s study, but he acknowledged the criticism had merit, and explained that time pressures and a lack of both information and money sometimes compromised WHO work. “We know our credibility is at stake,” Pang said, “and we are now going to get our act together.” WHO officials also noted that, in many cases, evidence simply did not exist. Data from developing countries are patchy at best, and in an outbreak, information changes as the crisis unfolds. To address the problem, they said, WHO is trying to develop new ways to collect information in poor regions, and has proposed establishing a committee to oversee the issuance of all health guidelines. The Lancet study—conducted in 2003–04 through analyzing WHO guidelines and questioning WHO officials—also found that the officials themselves were concerned about the agency’s methods. One unnamed WHO director was quoted in the study as saying: “I would have liked to have had more evidence to base recommendations on.” Another said: “We never had the evidence base well-documented.” Pang said that, while some guidelines might be suspect and based on just a few expert opinions, others were developed under rigorous study and so were more reliable. For example, WHO’s recent advice on treating bird flu patients was developed under tight scrutiny. Oxman also noted that WHO had its own quality-control process. When its 1999 guidelines for treating high blood pressure were criticized for, among other things, recommending expensive drugs over cheaper options without proven benefit, the agency issued its “guidelines for writing guidelines,” which led to a revision of its advice on hypertension. “People are well-intended at WHO,” Oxman said. “The problem is that good intentions and plausible theories aren’t sufficient.” It remains to be seen how WHO’s 193 member countries will react to the Lancet study, released just before WHO’s governing body—the World Health Assembly—meets next week [May 2007] at U.N. headquarters in Geneva to decide future health strategies. “If countries do not have confidence in the technical competence of WHO, then its very existence is called into question,” said Horton, the journal’s editor. “This study shows that there is a systemic problem within the organization, that it refuses to put science first.” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, who took over the position this year, will be under pressure to respond to the study’s criticism. “We need a strong WHO,” which in recent years “has seen its independence eroded and its trust diminished,” Horton said. “Now is a fabulous opportunity for WHO to reinvent itself as the technical agency it was always meant to be.”

    Note —This article was originally published by the Miami Herald, MiamiHerald. com, May 7, 2007.

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