Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Global health funding goes awry, but the media doesn't care

I wanted to point this out because this combines my two pet peeves about American media: lack of proper coverage of science, health and medical stories, and little, if any attention to significant international issues.

This story is big as far as global health issues go. It is about two studies – one by the WHO, which examined the impact of UN health programs in underdeveloped nations, and another by University of Washington and Harvard researchers, which looked at ways in which money from such programs is being spent.

The studies point to evidence that suggests that accelerated UN initiatives can actually be harmful to certain countries (like some African nations), which slash their own medical services on account of availability of international aid.

They also show that the amount of donations a country receives is not proportional to the gravity of the health crisis there; in other words, certain countries (like Ethiopia and Uganda) that receive significant amount of aid actually have fewer health issues than many (like Nigeria or Pakistan) that don't get sufficient financial help.

The most disheartening find was that the money wasn’t really helping in many poor nations because the UN was merely trying to resurrect ineffective health systems that were already in place, but were not really working.

Sanhita Reddy points out in the Columbia Journalism Review that these studies were hardly reported in mainstream newspapers and Web sites in the U.S.

A Wall Street Journal blog reported just half the story, giving a rosy-eyed picture of the quadrupling of global health funding, without detailing the observation that the money isn’t helping as much as it should.

Surprisingly, an article in the Seattle Times was perhaps one of the the most comprehensive reports of the findings in a newspaper. After going over the numbers and results, the piece actually elucidates on what the waning significance of organizations like the WHO and UNICEF might mean for global health since more money now comes from NGOs and private donors.

Not so surprisingly, a business magazine (Forbes) and a science magazine (Scientific American) had the most expansive coverage of the studies.

Thank goodness for niche journalism!

Talking of which, the CJR piece is obviously more expansive than mine.