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Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly: daily notes on proceedings

Notes: Monday, 21 May 2012

World Health Assembly opens with focus on universal coverage of healthcare

The Sixty-fifth World Health Assembly opened this morning, with delegates noting the tremendous achievements in health in recent decades and the emergence of health at the top of the development agenda. Universal coverage of healthcare was the focus of today’s discussions with many Member States expressing their strong support and desire to achieve this goal.

The delegates elected Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman, Minister of Health and the Fight against AIDS of Côte d’Ivoire, as the World Health Assembly's new president. Five vice presidents were also appointed from Afghanistan, Indonesia, Paraguay, Republic of Moldova, and Solomon Islands, representing their respective regions.

Positive developments and accountability

In his message, which was read by Mr Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the positive developments made in health, such as reductions in maternal mortality during pregnancy and childbirth, more people with HIV receiving antiretroviral treatment and more people protected from malaria. He stressed the importance of measuring achievements and encouraging accountability.

Professor Thérèse N’Dri-Yoman, the newly elected President, said the reform of WHO is aimed at making the Organization more relevant, more effective and more dynamic. She also stressed the importance of WHO’s ability to respond to health emergencies and the need for new mechanisms for funding public health programmes.

Best days for public health are ahead of us, says WHO Director-General

In her opening address, WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan highlighted the tremendous achievements made by countries in health in recent decades. She assured the delegates that despite the uncertainty about the future of the world economy, these achievements indicate the unprecedented momentum will continue. She said that universal healthcare is the single most powerful concept public health has to offer and urged Member States to focus on the basics, like primary healthcare, access to essential medicines, and universal coverage. She said we must look to innovation as never before. Innovation that responds to societal concerns and needs and sets out to develop a game-changing interventions to improve public health.

Focus on universal coverage and WHO reform

Multiple Member States supported the concept of universal health coverage and described it as an indispensable precondition for sustainable human development and a fair society. Some of them presented their experiences in implementing universal access to healthcare. Among the tools suggested were mainstreaming health in all national policies, sharing costs between public and private sectors, and offering subsidies and health insurance.

Member States also expressed their support for a stronger WHO and increasing transparency and accountability for its role. They said WHO has a critical role to play in prevention, equitable access and efficiency in public health, and the reform exercise should aim to strengthen the Organization.

Noncommunicable diseases

Committee A, chaired by Bhutan’s Minister of Health Mr Zangley Dukpa, began with a discussion on prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Member States from all regions and income levels expressed the need for united global and cross-sectoral action to prevent and control NCDs. Many recognized the important work done in the past year but there was still a common feeling that more consultation is needed to decide on measurable indicators as well as to set realistic, achievable targets for measuring progress. The Committee will continue its discussions on this topic Tuesday.

Challenges in health sector reforms in countries

Many countries are currently reforming their health systems to provide better services to their population. In a lunchtime briefing to discuss their experiences thus far, delegates noted that whatever path their reforms take, there are fundamental issues that are consistent, including the need for political commitment and strong, integrated assessment and planning.

Overcoming the impact of neglected tropical diseases

Resurgence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in areas where they have been controlled was a subject of concern at a lunch-time technical briefing. Speaking to a packed conference room, Prof. Therese N’Dri-Yoman, the newly elected President, described the “unprecedented force” that now exists among the global health community to overcome the impact of NTDs.

Delegates of six Member States spoke about the progress their countries have made in combatting NTDs and stressed the need for cooperation with WHO, academia, nongovernmental organizations and the pharmaceutical industry. This collaboration is critical to ensure continued progress in areas such as expansion of preventive chemotherapy, intensified case detection and case management, and improved vector control.

A number of speakers highlighted that the largest burden of NTDs is borne by poverty-stricken areas, and that measures to improve general hygiene must remain an important component of any health response. Italy reminded the audience that with climate change and increased global travel, European countries also now face the threat of NTDs.