Is this really progress at all? ‘Trade’ at the 67th World Health Assembly

Trade is a myriad concept to most of the health profession. Negotiated by economists, industry, foreign ministers and the World Trade Organisation the health profession muzzle down and continue their own work. But the potential impacts of trade on health are colossal and cannot be ignored. This fact is not revolutionary; but ‘new’ (or revived) trade agreement negotiations currently under discussion have led to renewed interest in the topic among the health sector and health activists.


What are these trade agreements?

The Trans-pacific partnership (TPP between the US and 12 other countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership  (TTIP between the US and the EU) are free trade agreements currently under secret negotiations. A global momentum is calling for increased transparency on the negotiations in order to allow experts the opportunity to analyse the potential impacts on health as well as all other sectors.


Why trade at the World Health Assembly?

The International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) passed a policy statement on ‘Trade and Health’ in March 2014. This was as a result of a growing awareness and concern among medical students internationally of the potential impact of these current trade agreements on both health and medical education; namely restricting access to medicines and health systems globally, as well as increasing the price of medical education. As a group predominantly consisting of medical students in-depth understanding of trade, economics and law was lacking but through perseverance we have developed a thorough foundation and campaign plan.


At the World Health Assembly, representatives of the IFMSA and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) worked together to put forward the youth voice on trade and the impact on health. During the four day youth training prior to the WHA a policy brief was created, and a blog submitted to the Lancet Global Health articulating youth concerns, “Stepping out of the Silos – Integrating Global Health into Trade Negotiations. Attendees were also able to practice a melange of advocacy skills preparing them for intervening in plenary and meeting Margaret Chan in the elevator …


As it turns out, the youth contingent were far from alone in their concerns about trade. In her opening speech Margaret Chan did not hide her fear of the impact of trade stating, “If [trade] agreements open trade yet close access to affordable medicines: Is this really progress at all?” followed by a specific mention of the terrifying provisions for investor state dispute settlements (ISDS) contained in TPP and TTIP, “Something’s fundamentally wrong when a corporation can challenge government policies introduced to protect public from product that kills.” (ISDS allow corporations to sue governments if national health policies affect the corporation’s profits directly).


Building on momentum and buoyed on by similar feelings from other delegates at WHA, IFMSA and UAEM delegates fielded a series of excellent questions regarding the impacts of trade in side-events on NCDs and access to medicines, drawing debate from the likes of Richard Horton and support from many other NGOs and academics. Trade was also gaining mentions for governments during discussions on access to medicines, and the involvement of non-state actors, namely industry, in health policy making.


A side event organised by Medicus Mundi allowed interested parties to further explore the issues; with many participants delighted that trade was finally receiving some prominence at the WHA. Speakers, David Price from Queen Mary University, London and Tamar Lawrence-Samuel from Corporate Accountability International delved into trade and waved red flags for public health; particularly emphasising the dangers of ISDS, the potential impacts on access to medicines and how a lack of political autonomy would be devastating for governments. A loud, angry audience provided colourfully varied accounts from their work of their concerns with regards to trade. And so, the first trade event was a success, much was learnt and anger was revealed. But I feel that a lack of key stakeholders or government ministers may reflect the political will regarding these issues. That is where the real power lies, and where the concerns need to be heard.


Nevertheless, it was a start and I gather that trade gathered more prominence than ever before at the WHA. “Don’t trade health for wealth” was the mantra of the IFMSA and UAEM. We are ever learning and have an increasingly strong voice on the impact of trade to the health of future populations; we are the next generation of health leaders and will not rest whilst our governments negotiate away our health in secret.


Think Global is the IFMSA’s premier global health initiative; if you want to get involved campaigning on trade in health; or any other of a wide range of global health issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch on [email protected].

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