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World Health Assembly opens

Director-General highlights opportunity to build "health legacy" for women and the people of Africa

The World Health Assembly opened on Monday with an optimistic assessment of the global health scene from the new WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, and a call for global health leaders to build a "health legacy" for women and the people of Africa.

Dr Chan opened her speech with an upbeat assessment of the importance of health and health policy in the world: "Health is now seen as a key area of engagement for foreign policy. Health has become an attractive focus for corporate social responsibility."

Recalling the statement she made when she was elected as Director-General in November, Dr Chan told the Health Assembly, "I have identified the health of two populations as indicators of our overall performance: the people of Africa and women."

Dr Chan underlined the importance of improving the health of women. She said that women need special attention in health agendas for three main reasons: their role as care-givers; their reproductive role; and "most important, women are agents of change. They can lift households and communities out of poverty." She emphasized her commitment to improving the health of people in Africa: "Today, the overwhelming burden of disease is borne by the African people. We must not allow Africa to become the continent left behind by development."

Last month, Africa’s health ministers, under the leadership of the African Union, approved the continent’s first overarching health strategy for the years 2007 to 2015. Dr Chan commented that the strategy "emphasizes the need to revitalize the primary health care approach, and calls for a minimum package of core interventions that can be made available to all."

The Director-General acknowledged the debt of the world to health leaders in the past: "The progress we have made in global health in recent decades has not come about by accident. It has come about because our predecessors dared to dream, and dared to question the status quo. They not only had a vision for a better and brighter future. They worked enthusiastically towards it."

"There will always be unmet needs, but health has never before received such attention or enjoyed such wealth," she said.

Dr Chan outlined her six-point agenda for WHO: health development; health security; strengthening health systems; using evidence to define strategies and measure results; managing partnerships to get the best results in countries, and improving the performance of WHO.

Dr Chan also used her speech to look forward to the entry into force on 15 June of the revised International Health Regulations, which were adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2005. "Pro-active risk management is the strategy behind these Regulations. They aim to stop an event at source, before it has a chance to become an international threat."

The Director-General then addressed the threat of a pandemic of influenza and the efforts she is personally making to resolve some of the issues linked to preparing for a pandemic.

"I am personally engaged in several efforts to ensure access to vaccines in all countries," Dr Chan said. She then highlighted agreements to transfer technology to vaccine manufacturers in the developing world, work on establishing a stockpile of H5N1 vaccine and advance procurement mechanisms for pandemic vaccine. "I am in dialogue with development partners and with executives from all the leading influenza vaccine companies. I am greatly encouraged by their commitment."

For more information contact:

WHO Department of Communications, Geneva

Fadéla Chaib
Mobile: +41 79 475 5556

Christine McNab
Mobile: +41 79 254 6815

Iain Simpson
Mobile: + 41 79 475 5534

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