The conclusion was reached by health experts and officials meeting in Beijing for an international health conference that looked at cost-effective strategies to combat some of the biggest global health problems.

 

Dean Jamison, a health economics professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said: "You do not need to have much in the way of resources to acquire good health at a national level.

 

"If you have the right policies, if you make the right investments, huge health gains can ensue."

 

Researchers released three books at the start of the conference that outline the best and worst buys that help or hinder the goal of saving lives from maladies ranging from cancer and HIV/Aids to injuries suffered in traffic accidents.

 

Longer, healthier lives

 

The researchers said spending money up front on cost-effective intervention could add years to people's lives.

 

"If you have the right policies, if you make the right investments, huge health gains can ensue"

Dean Jamison, health economics professor, University of California, San Francisco

For instance, they said spending an extra $2 to $20 on expanding child vaccination programmes buys an extra year of life, while paying $8 to $20 to switch to lower resistance combination malaria drugs is equal to an added year of healthy life.

 

George Alleyne, director emeritus of the Pan American Health Organisation and an editor for the Disease Control Priorities Project, tried to debunk the belief that wealth brought health.

 

"Many of our ministers think of health systems as a bottomless pit that cannot be addressed.

 

"You do not have to be rich to improve your health; that is an essential message of this book," he said.

 

Cost-saving strategies

 

He said countries could save large amounts of money simply by using the data collected for what works and what does not - for example, avoiding costly surgery for people with epilepsy and instead providing pills that cost a few cents each.

 

Adding speed bumps at intersections was also found to bring big savings by greatly reducing the number of traffic accidents, while using aspirin and beta-blocker drugs cut down on heart disease and stroke, the biggest single killer in developing countries.

 

Dr Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, said the region desperately needed cost-effective interventions to offset its huge health burden, which varies greatly among countries.

 

Japan has a life expectancy of 82 years, compared to Papua New Guinea where it is only 53.

 

"In the 37 countries and areas that make up our region, 11,000 people die every day due to cardiovascular disease and another 6,500 people die as the result of cancer," he said in a video presentation.

 

"More than 1 million cases of tuberculosis are diagnosed annually in the region every year. Newly emerging infectious diseases, first Sars and now avian influenza, demand that we strengthen our ability to detect and respond to outbreaks at the grassroots level."

 

Jamison pointed to China as an example of a country that had made big improvements to its people's health at relatively minimal cost.

 

He said life expectancy there had increased by 30 years from 1950 to 1980, even though the country's income levels remained low.

 

Dr Sally Stansfield, a global health strategies associate director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said China had improved the health of people in rural areas - where health systems are often inadequate - by fortifying foods, including adding iodine to salt and iron to soya sauce.