Waxman letter on WHO Publications Policy

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman has today sent a letter to World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan regarding the WHO’s proposed publication policy.

A pdf version of the letter is here: Chan5.19.08WHO.pdf

An html version of the text follows on the continuation of this post.

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
2157 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-6143

May 19, 2008

Dr. Margaret Chan
Director-General
World Health Organization
Avenue Appia 20
CH – 1211 Geneva
Switzerland

Dear Dr. Chan:

It has come to my attention that the World Health Organization (WHO) may soon be adopting and implementing a new policy regarding publications. I am writing to express my hope that any new policies adopted will be designed in a manner that is not politicized and continues to prioritize scientific and intellectual freedom.

My understanding is that the proposed policy would provide special review for publications that “describe the workings of a particular government” or discuss “controversial” issues. I am concerned about this change because of past demands by the current U.S. Administration that WHO withdraw a publication perceived to be critical of U.S. policy.[1] At the time, U.S. officials also called for “a full review” of WHO’s publication policy.[2] Though the publication in question was not withdrawn, the proposed changes could increase the likelihood of inappropriate interference with the work of ‘WHO in the future.

WHO publications cover a broad range of medical and scientific issues and range from journal articles to reports to technical guidance documents. They are an important resource for policymakers, health care professionals, and public health advocates around the world.

Under current policy, as described in a WHO Secretariat report, documents are reviewed by appropriate WHO offices and by independent experts, under the supervision of assistant directors-general and regional directors.[3] Documents are “expected to reflect the latest scientific and medical research” and those designed to “facilitate debate” are to be “evidence-based. balanced and constructive.”[4]

At recent meetings, the WHO Executive Board has discussed proposals to change the publication process. Stated objectives include minimizing costs, maximizing the availability of documents, and ensuring the reliability and validity of scientific information in WHO documents.[5] These are important objectives.

However, I urge you to oppose additional changes that could increase the risk of politicization of the WHO publication process. For example, extra review of publications that address “the workings of a particular government or national health service” could invite protest and interference from any country that feels it has been criticized, no matter how valid the policy analysis. Similarly, extra review of publications on “controversial health-related issues” could introduce a similar level of protest, obstruction, or delay. Moreover, this kind of scrutiny of publications could produce a chilling effect on researchers and experts, discouraging the exploration of topics that could trigger an extra layer of review.

The WHO is a crucial and trusted source of medical and health information for governments, health professionals, and the public in every corner of the world. I urge the organization to continue to prioritize scientific independence and minimize the possibility of inappropriate political interference with the publication process.

Sincerely,

Henry A. Waxman
Chairman

[1] Letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Henry A. Waxman to Secretary Michael Leavitt, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Oct. 13, 2006) (online at http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20061013142520-31371.pdf); citing letter from William R. Steiger, HHS Special Assistant for International Affairs, to Acting Director General Anders Nordstrom, World Health Organization (Aug. 18, 2006).
[2] Id.
[3]World Health Organization, Programme Budget and Administration, Committee of the Executive Board, Provisional Agenda Item 3.2, WHO publication policy: Report by the Secretariat (May 3, 2007).
[4] Id.
[5] World Health Organization Executive Board, l23nd Session, Provisional Agenda Item 6.2, WHO Publications Policy: Guidance on implementation and evaluation, Report from the Secretariat (Apr. 14, 2008).