After reading John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,
U.S. President George W. Bush put the country on high alert for avian
flu. With the World Health Organization (WHO) predicting a death toll
of up to 100 million, FP spoke to the man who convinced the president of how dangerous the virus really is.
Scientists around the world are scrambling to unlock the potential of stem cells.
Governments trying to balance research and ethics have quickly learned that
they have little control. Competition for top researchers and private capital
is pushing the pace -- and punishing those who stumble.
For tobacco control advocates, the tobacco industry is public health enemy number one: It sells a commodity that will kill 500 million of the 6 billion people living today. For governments, tobacco is both a health threat and a powerful economic force that annually generates hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and billions more in tax revenues. That clash of interests fuels a debate ensnarling everything from farm subsidies and export controls to healthcare spending, taxation, law enforcement, and free speech.
Imagine the World Trade Organization (WTO) striking down a national ban on importing cloned embryos because it is a barrier to trade. Neither the WTO, nor individual governments, nor scientists, nor ethicists can effectively regulate human biotechnology on a global scale. So who will settle the troubling questions it raises?
So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but … a cough. Shocked by anthrax attacks and widespread talk of other types of bioterrorism, today's cataclysmists can perhaps be forgiven their fears that Western civilization faces a fatal threat. But for Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director-general of the World Health Organization, it's just another day at the office. As leader of the global fight to protect public health, Brundtland already contends with current plagues such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis -- diseases whose daily death toll is measured not in headlined ones or twos, but in anonymous tens of thousands. Her foes in that struggle are not terrorists, but tight-fisted politicians, recalcitrant bureaucrats, and hard-nosed corporate executives. Luckily, Brundtland's experience and tenacity as three-time prime minister of Norway and head of the World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland Commission) have made her not just one of the world's most seasoned female politicians, but what one observer called "a warrior for public health." Here, in an October 18, 2001, conversation with FP Editor Moisés Naím in New York City, she talks about tomorrow's greatest health threats, the best and worst of global medical care, her fight against Big Tobacco and Big Drugs, and the vital role her underfunded, increasingly politicized institution plays in the unending war against disease and poverty.