World Health Assembly sets bold new action for WHO
24 May 2008 | Geneva - The 61st World Health Assembly, which comprised of a record 2704 participants from 190 nations, today set WHO on a course to tackle longstanding, new and looming threats to global public health. Among its achievements, the Health Assembly produced a public health breakthrough by providing a platform for removing barriers and using innovative methods to encourage research, development and access to medicines for the common diseases of the developing world.
"This is a major breakthrough for public health that will benefit many millions of people for many years to come," said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. "This is a contribution to fairness in health and this is pro-active public health at its very best."
The public health, innovation and intellectual property strategy endorsed by the Health Assembly is designed to promote new approaches to pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), and to enhance access to medicines. It is also designed to provide a medium-term framework for enhancing and making sustainable essential R&D relevant to diseases impacting developing countries. The strategy proposes clear objectives and priorities, and estimates of funding needs in this area.
Delegates to the Health Assembly directly confronted major public health challenges which are now results of complex interactions of factors beyond health.
"At this World Health Assembly, we witnessed the interplay between the political, trade and health interests," said the President of the Health Assembly, Dr Leslie Ramsammy who is the Minister of Health of Guyana. "Child and maternal health, and the prevention and management of noncommunicable diseases rely on the supply chain and commodities. We are now much closer to having an increased flow of quality health commodities that will lead to better health."
The Health Assembly endorsed a six-year action plan to tackle what are now the leading threats to human health: noncommunicable diseases. These diseases - particularly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases - caused 60% of all deaths globally in 2005 (estimated at 35 million deaths). Low- and middle-income countries are the worst affected by these diseases which are largely preventable by modifying four common risk factors: tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol.
Delegates also requested WHO - through a resolution - to intensify its work to curb harmful use of alcohol, which is the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability in the world. They called upon WHO to develop a global strategy for this purpose. The work on the strategy will start immediately and Member States will be consulted throughout the drafting process. The resolution also requests the Director- General to consult with intergovernmental organizations, health professionals, nongovernmental organizations and economic operators on ways they could contribute to reducing harmful use of alcohol.
Delegates to the Health Assembly also requested WHO and committed their own Ministries of Health to take action to protect health from climate change. They adopted a resolution that urges Member States to take decisive action to address health impacts from climate change, warning of its potential risks on human health. The resolution calls on the health sector
- to scale up adaptation projects that would limit the impacts of climate change on health;
- to raise global awareness of the impacts of health from climate change at national and international levels; and
- to boost political attention and action.
Member States also called on WHO to develop and strengthen the evidence base on links between climate change and health, and to help developing countries address health impacts from climate change.
The Health Assembly's actions were not limited to new challenges. Delegates also reaffirmed their commitments to eradicating polio and preparing for an influenza pandemic. Other actions included:
- Female genital mutilation (FGM): Member States committed themselves to accelerating action towards the elimination of this practice through laws and educational and community efforts. Moreover, women and girls who have undergone FGM will be better supported, particularly as regards their care during childbirth, as well as in the social and psychological areas.
- Global immunization strategy: Vaccines already prevent 2 to 3 million deaths a year but the Health Assembly noted that they are still underutilized. Delegates directed WHO to help countries reach higher immunization coverage and to encourage development of new vaccines.
- Migrant health: Member States requested WHO to assess the health aspects in migrant environments and to explore options to improve the health of migrants.
"Health leaders from around the world have joined together in a united front on many big and difficult issues," said Dr Chan in closing the Health Assembly. "You consistently demonstrated a desire to reach consensus, and showed great flexibility in achieving compromise despite some significant differences."
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