Reducing the risks
The Bulletin interview with Susanne Weber-Mosdorf.
Susanne Weber-Mosdorf studied economics, law and political science at the University of Constance in her native Germany and management at the Ecole nationale d’administration in Paris. She worked in the private sector as managing director of Prognos GmbH, an economics research institute, and held a number of government positions, including mayor of the town of Kirchheim unter Teck, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Family Affairs, Women, Further Education and Art in the German State of Baden-Württemberg and director-general for International and European Affairs at the Federal Ministry of Health and Social Security. She joined WHO as assistant director-general for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments in 2006 and was also appointed special representative for European Union (EU) affairs.
WHO is taking the lead in the global fight against foodborne disease. In September, it launched a new initiative to estimate the global burden of disease in this area, an important first step for gauging the size of the problem and appropriate responses to it.
Q: You have taken a special interest in food safety. What is WHO doing to help countries prevent foodborne disease?
A: We need to gauge the scale of the problem in order to address it. Our department for Food Safety, Zoonoses* and Foodborne Diseases has been collecting information on disease transmitted through food. We are taking this further now with a new global initiative to estimate the global disease burden from foodborne diseases in a comprehensive and systematic way. This initiative was launched in September at an international consultation attended by over 50 experts from around the world.
Q: How can WHO commit governments to reducing risks posed to health from foodborne disease and other environmental threats?
A: We are contributing to the revised International Health Regulations that come into force in June 2007. Current emergency procedures for food safety and chemical and nuclear hazards need to be linked to these regulations. Our experts advise countries on how to assess the health risks of a chemical spill, an outbreak of foodborne disease or other environmental disasters. Now, in addition to that, we will advise them on whether the incident has health implications outside the country’s borders and, if it has, we will advise them on how to apply the new regulations. I was involved in negotiations on these regulations while still working as an official of the German government. The revised regulations are an important part of global health governance and form the basis for early detection of and effective defence against international health threats. Our departments help countries to do risk assessment of a wide range of environmental hazards that affect health and security, and we advise them on legislation to help set standards in these areas. We also play an important part in WHO’s role of improving and raising awareness of health security, the subject of next year’s World health report. Environmental protection can play a significant role in reinforcing global health security. For example, environmental risks such as climate change, air pollution, chemical pollutants and damage to ecosystems can reduce health security, while environmental protection can improve the world in which we live. In our work on food safety, protection of the environment, and health and trade, we look closely at the determinants of health: in other words, the factors that cause disease and the strategies that can prevent ill-health. I am pleased that these determinants feature more prominently in work plans for the next few years for the whole organization.
Q: Why is trade important to global health? What is the significance of the World Health Assembly resolution on trade and health passed in May 2006 (WHA 59.26)?
A: This resolution has given WHO the mandate to strengthen the knowledge and evidence base of ministries of health and thus enable them to work more effectively with their colleagues in the ministries of trade, commerce and finance. As part of this work on global trade and health, we examine how trade relations may be used to promote trade between countries that could result in improved health, for example in our work on consumer and food protection. Trade in food products has grown rapidly due to trade liberalization. Today, food is one of the most widely traded commodities.
Q: How is WHO helping countries make this widely traded commodity safer?
A: It is our responsibility to promote food safety. That way we can prevent millions if not billions of cases of foodborne illness — before it debilitates people and detracts from the nutrition food should give. In particular, our goal is to help significantly reduce the disease risk from microbiological and chemical contaminants in food in the coming 5 to 10 years. We are also working to ensure that food of animal origin does not bring with it unwanted and unexpected consequences such as the occurrence of resistance to antimicrobials or antibiotics that we use to treat disease in humans. This is a result of the use of antibiotics in animal fodder, which contributes to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance in pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, that are transmitted to humans via contaminated meat. And we should not forget our preventive work related to avian influenza. Here, we have focused both on occupational and food-safety aspects, promoting simple messages to avoid transmission of the virus by following sensible rules for contact with poultry and its slaughter and preparation.
Q: How effective is the Codex Alimentarius for fighting foodborne disease?
A: Despite some of its weaknesses, such as the slow and cumbersome administrative procedures, the Codex Alimentarius is an important means of setting food safety standards based on independent scientific advice. WHO’s collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization and other UN agencies in establishing these food standards has helped to improve the lives of people worldwide and to facilitate international trade in food. We need to work towards a greater use of existing trade mechanisms, such as aid for trade, to help developing countries improve risk assessment and risk management systems for food safety.