World Health Organisation accused of improper soliciting of funds from the pharmaceutical industry

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It seems that not a week goes by without some information leaking out about the sometimes too-cosy relationship that can exist between the pharmaceutical industry and organisations we rely on for giving us impartial health information and advice. This particular week’s story concerns accusations that a representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) attempted to solicit funds from the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, and then siphon them through an organisation to obscure the source of the those funds.

The individual at the centre of this controversy is Dr Benedetto Saraceno, director of the WHO’s department of mental health and substance abuse. It is alleged that he was seeking �£5000 ($10,000; 7000 euros) to pay for the preparation for a report on neurological diseases including Parkinson’s disease. The WHO has a strict policy that forbids it from taking funds from the pharmaceutical industry, and quite right so.

However, in an email that has been passed to the British Medical Journal, Dr Saraceno appears to suggest that to get around this, money from GSK should be paid to an organisation known as the European Parkinson’s Disease Association (EPDA). In an email to the EPDA, Dr Saraceno writes WHO cannot receive funds from the pharmaceutical industry, and goes on to add I suggest that this money should be given to EPDA and eventually EPDA can send the funds to WHO which will give and invoice (and acknowledgment contribution) to EPDA but not to GSK.

It is alleged that GSK promptly withdrew its offer once it became clear they would not be officially recognised as the source of this funding.

Since the somewhat”damning correspondence came to light, it seems that Dr Saraceno has attempted to do some major backtracking. He claims that his original email to EPDA was clumsily worded and that he denied ever suggesting that funds from GSK be siphoned through the EPDA. Personally, I find it hard to imagine what it is about the wording of Dr Saraceno’s email to the EPDA that is in any way clumsy. And neither does Mary Baker – the person at the EPDA to whom Dr Saraceno was writing. She is quoted as saying There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Dr Saraceno knew the $10,000 was coming from GSK and that he was intending to take it and disguise its origins by getting EPDA to accept it first before passing it on.

When the BMJ put its concerns about this rather distasteful episode to the WHO, a spokesman apparently replied It’s astonishing that the BMJ thinks there’s a story here. Dr Saraceno sent a second email saying he had not meant to ask for the money. So I don’t think there’s anything to answer. Does the WHO really believe that just because one of its employees denies impropriety, even when presented with evidence that appears to suggest otherwise, that there is no case to answer? I have a feeling that many who learn of this sorry state of affairs would beg to differ.


1. Day M. Who’s funding WHO? British Medical Journal 2007;334:338-340

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