15th May 2000
HEALTH GOES INTERNATIONAL
53rd WORLD HEALTH ASSEMBLY OPENS IN GENEVA
The 53rd World Health Assembly opened in Geneva today. Delegates from the 191 World Health Organization's Member States have elected Dr Libertina Amathila, Minister of Health and Social Services of Namibia, President of the Assembly.
In her statement to the Assembly, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General, singled out four strategic areas for WHO: reduction of mortality and disability, reduction of risks to human health, health systems development, and putting health at the centre of economic and development policy.
Indeed, international health is no longer an exclusive domain of health professionals. "As Heads of State, including the G8 leaders, debate the major political issues facing our world, health issues are prominent on the agenda," explained Dr Brundtland. "Health is on the mind of finance ministers attending the World Bank and IMF as they discuss debt relief. For the first time in its history, a health issue – HIV/AIDS in Africa – has been discussed by the Security Council of the United Nations. Health is a key theme in the Millennium Report by the United Nations' Secretary General."
Referring to the HIV/AIDS pandemic as "a drama and tragedy of historic proportions," WHO Director-General said: "We cannot accept that important drugs – which have been discovered, produced and made available – can only be used by a fortunate few. We cannot accept that for the millions who need them most they might as well be on another planet". But there are encouraging developments. "Several pharmaceutical companies have already responded to my invitation to take a fresh look at how to increase access to relevant drugs," said Dr Brundtland. "They want to help make HIV/AIDS care and treatment more affordable to significantly greater numbers of people in developing countries." At the same time, Dr Brundtland warned her audience about the dangers of overlooking other equally important issues: reliable supply systems, adequate financing, laboratory back-up, patient supervision, and the need to set clear, ethical and politically acceptable priorities for public subsidies.
Echoing the words of the President of the Assembly, Dr Brundtland spoke about new international initiatives addressing the health of poor people. They include Roll Back Malaria, the International Partnership against AIDS in Africa, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, Stop TB, and Making Pregnancy Safer. These new initiatives are designed to have impact on people's lives. "We know this is beginning to happen," stated Director-General. "More bednets over children as they sleep. More TB drugs available for supervised treatment. More trained attendants at deliveries."
Touching on WHO's efforts to eradicate specific diseases, Director-General reminded her audience to be "prepared to stay the course until the job is done". More than 190 countries and territories are on track to be polio-free by the end of this year but parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent might still have polio transmission at that time. There are several reasons why it is much more difficult to eradicate polio in these areas, among them: armed conflicts, vaccine shortages, inadequate epidemiological surveillance and extreme logistical challenges.
"This does not change our ultimate goal", declared Dr Brundtland. "The certification date for global eradication of polio is 2005, and we are on track to meet that target. I appeal to political leaders, particularly in the high-risk countries, to increase their commitment all the way to 2005."
"For leprosy, the global elimination target is likely to be achieved by the end of the year 2000. Just 12 countries now carry about 90% of the remaining leprosy burden," said Dr Brundtland. The remaining 2.8 million leprosy sufferers could be cured.
Referring to the WHO humanitarian relief operations, WHO Director-General singled out Kosovo, East Timor, Turkey and Mozambique as examples of WHO's rapid reaction that helped to save "numerous lives". Social reconstruction is the other side of the relief coin. "We need to stay on. After the TV crews have left," said Dr Brundtland.
Dr Brundtland committed WHO to more intensive work to make pregnancy safer, to reduce ill health and to promote food safety. She also described work on the 2000 World Health Report: covering new ground on methods for assessing the performance of health systems. This will be taken forward in four round tables with Ministers of Health on 16 May.
The themes of Dr Brundtland's address – ill health and poverty, partnership and the need for focussed action at country level – were taken up by the President of the Assembly.
In her acceptance speech, Dr Amathila, "on behalf of the people and government of Namibia, the Southern African Development Community, the African region and womenfolk throughout the world", thanked the Assembly "for the honour bestowed on us by electing me as President of the first World Health Assembly of the 21st century and the new millennium."
She focused on the plight of the poor in today's world. "About half of the world's population is so poor that it cannot afford proper housing, adequate health care or education for their children. Malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis continue to plague many parts of the world, particularly the developing world. These diseases are compounded by poverty and they also lead to poverty," said Dr Amathila. "We know that tuberculosis takes its greatest toll on the poor: 98% of the deaths due to tuberculosis and 95% of the eight million new cases every year are in developing countries, thus adding to the burden of the poor and affecting local economies."
For further information, please contact Mr Valery Abramov, Office of the Spokesperson, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (+41 22) 791 25 43. Fax (+41 22) 791 4858. Email : firstname.lastname@example.org.
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