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The World Health Organization (WHO) together with the Iceland Ministry of Health and Social Security sponsored a conference entitled “Human Spinal Cord Injury: New and Emerging Approaches to Treatment” held on May 31 – June 2, 2001 in Reykjavik, Iceland. To help catalyze the development of new paradigms to address spinal cord injury, the conference’s overall goal was to bring in a diversity of perspectives, ranging from state-of-the-art stem cell biology to the ancient wisdom of Eastern Medicine.

As a consequence of this meeting, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General, WHO has mandated the creation of a WHO Collaborating Center to be located in Reykjavik, Iceland (see photo). The Center's tentative mission statement is indicated below.

The nascent Center’s underlying philosophy is that if we can open-mindedly integrate the divergent pieces of the puzzle that exist throughout the world - whether they originate in the US, China, Israel, etc., whether they reflect the perspectives of Western medicine or Eastern or indigenous healing traditions, or whether they reflect the contributions of large academic medical centers or small clinics - restoration of function is a real world possibility now and not just some distant pie-in-the-sky possibility.

Furthermore, the mission statement reflects the belief that at a global level, SCI is a human-rights issue.


According to the WHO mission statement, ”the objective of WHO is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible levels of health.” The goal of the Icelandic WHO Collaborating Center is to help fulfill this objective with respect to spinal cord injury (SCI) by fostering the development of new treatments, “cures,” and approaches for restoring function after SCI.

Few physical disabilities have as profound of an impact as SCI. Unlike most neurological disorders that affect the elderly, SCI frequently afflicts young adults whose societal contributions have just begun.  In addition to life-altering physiological changes caused by paralysis, these individuals, who have a near-normal life expectancy, face immense lifetime SCI-associated expenses that must be shouldered either by the individual or society.  Finally, because people with SCI desire the opportunity to be meaningfully integrated into society and mankind’s most fundamental freedom of self-determination, SCI becomes a human-rights issue.

From a human-rights perspective, the Center’s overall goal is to facilitate the bringing forth of new treatments, cures, and approaches for restoring function after SCI that will permit greater personal independence, societal participation, and overall quality of life.  Scientifically, these approaches will include basic science, clinical research, assistive and rehabilitative technology, and relevant social policy research.

Consistent with the WHO published guidelines “International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health,” the Center recognizes that one can cure problems faced by people with SCI by improving the person’s physical capacity or/and changing the environment.  The former involves a spectrum of endpoints, including ambulation, grasping ability, bowel and bladder control, sexual function, pain and spasticity reduction, etc., modest improvements of which can often greatly affect quality of life and independence. The latter involves a diversity of social issues that provide access to the world we live in, including, equal opportunity for education and employment, provision of assistive technologies and personal assistance, accessible transportation and housing, etc.

Reflecting the diversity inherent in the WHO, the Center will strive to be as inclusive as possible with respect to the divergent world thinking for treating the sequelae of SCI. By so doing, it will attempt to synergistically integrate approaches that have been developed throughout the world to create new, beneficial knowledge that is greater than the sum of the components.

Examples of potential Center-facilitated collaborative emphases include:

bulletCreating an inclusive data-base containing information on SCI research, therapies, healing modalities and assistive technologies of benefit to both researchers and health-care consumers.
bulletDeveloping conferences and workshops facilitating bridge-building collaborations among SCI scientists, health-care professionals, and people with SCI
bulletFostering cross-disciplinary approaches to SCI, for example, combining a non-biological intervention (e.g., exoskeleton prosthetic) and a biological intervention (e.g., creating weak walkers as a function of surgery).
bulletFostering bench-to-bedside technology-transfer, including clinical and community trials.
bulletFostering resource-maximizing relationships, partnerships, and collaborations between government, non-profit, and for-profit organizations.
bulletBuilding synergistic collaborations between SCI research endeavors carried out in different countries.
bulletFostering the critical evaluation of therapies developed by small, independent clinics through the establishment of relationships with research-focused institutions.
bulletFostering the scientific evaluation of non-Western, albeit often empirically supported, therapies (e.g., eastern or indigenous healing traditions) using qualitative research as well as quantitative research models.
bulletRecognizing that much of the World’s population cannot afford Western high-technology medicine, fostering the development of approaches consistent with the unique needs of Third-World or developing nations.
bulletFoster the evaluation of social policy influences on opportunity equalization for individuals with SCI in education, employment, housing, transportation, communication, and economic self-sufficiency.

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