For the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, delegates from all member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) rallied up in person at the seventy-sixth World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. Held between 21-30 May, this year, the Assembly followed the theme of: WHO at 75: Saving lives, driving health for all.
This year saw a huge surge of attendance and involvement by all members, with the energy provided proving vital to addressing a range of issues necessary to ensure continuity in bettering global health for all, including: our preparedness for future pandemics, allocating budgets for more robust research on climate change, food and nutrition, infection prevention and control, the lives of women and children, wellbeing and health promotion, and standards for disability health.
Following on from our previous blog, we delve into the discussions and outcomes of this year’s WHA, exploring their potential impact on future global health.
Alongside approvals for budgets for 2024-25 and a 20% increase in assessed contributions from member countries, of which top contributors include Germany, UK, and the European Commission, the committee discussed the following topics:
Recognising the urgent need for action, delegates of the WHA participated in a Strategic Roundtable on The Role of the Health Community in Climate Action: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, during which the committee heard that 70% of reporting countries identified a lack of funding as their greatest barrier to managing the health implications of climate change. Compassionate pleas were heard from climate change advocates. Germany underscored a commitment of €2 billion in additional funding for the Green Climate Fund to support low and middle-income countries, with the WHO concluding that more emphasis is needed on urgent funding for the health and climate agenda.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dr Barbosa, urged high-level committee members to ensure that people’s health is an utmost priority for the global response to future pandemics by building confidence in community health systems, providing better training to the healthcare workforce, sharing data to promote a collective approach to pandemic prevention, and ensuring equal access to healthcare for all.A complete analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic was proposed, which will encompass a comprehensive review of the challenges humanity faced, including our failures and strengths to future-proof our pandemic strategies. The Task Force for Global Health recommended a shift towards accelerating health workforce development, particularly towards field epidemiologists, to increase national capacities for pandemic preparedness. Epidemiologists help build global surveillance of pandemics and improve response capacity by undertaking extensive population-based studies to investigate disease prevalence and the consequences of disease outbreaks. With funding into newer technologies and further training for epidemiologists, we can start to think about incorporating outbreak surveillance strategies similar to those used by the central meteorological office so that we can forecast any future pandemics and prepare humanity for what’s to come.
The WHA celebrated the achievements of women in health and reaffirmed its commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment in health. It was identified that at least 54 countries are not on track to achieve targets outlined by the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) attributed to new-born and child survival. Increased mental health issues and gender-based violence during the pandemic were among the humanitarian crises that were noted, and a proposal was provided by the Federal Government of Somalia for a 2024 Resolution to accelerate progress for women’s and children’s health in order to reach SDG targets. Additional targets were also set to reduce the burden of nutrient deficiencies, which currently affect 67% of all women of reproductive age. This includes recommendations for large-scale food fortification, which was adopted under the umbrella of the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition.
Cancer too was a significant focus of the WHA and women’s health. PAHO has put forward ‘The Plan’ based on the collective priorities of WHO member states as stated by target 3.4 of the SGD to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by one-third by 2030, with a goal to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem in the Americas by 2030.
Ongoing efforts to end tuberculosis (TB) were a highlight at this year’s Assembly as it continues to take the lives of 1.6 million people each year despite being treatable and curable. Romania, Lithuania, and Estonia were noted to be the European counties with the highest burden of multi-resistant TB in the world in 2019. Delegates participating in the Strategic Round Table on Ending TB by 2030
debated on effective ways to strengthen our approach to TB, with hopes to reach 2030 targets.
Ahead of the WHA, the UK is set to invest £39 million into research for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to support the early development of newer antibiotics and other products to combat life-threatening antibiotic-resistant infections. The Global Leaders Group (GLG) galvanised political action for global AMR response, reiterating the necessity for raising awareness of AMR and the need for financial support. GLG members emphasised that without action, even the most common infections can become untreatable, leading to riskier surgeries and increased mortality rates from infections that were once manageable by using antibiotics.
WHA alliance events magnified the voices of those living with NCDs, portraying one vital message, that “NCD prevention and care must be included in Universal Health Coverage discussions.” The WHO’s “best buys” list, which is a list of cost-effective interventions which aim to address NCDs, has been updated to further reduce the burden of NCDs. This includes; the addition of a sugar tax on targeted beverages that has already resulted in a 15% reduction in sales; more stringent tobacco control across the world, such as banning advertisements, promoting mass media campaigns about the harms of smoking, and implementing more graphic health warnings on tobacco products; and, as outlined in the WHO’s SAFER technical package, a further rise in the taxation on alcohol and stricter regulation of its availability. A new initiative, Vital Strategies’ RESET Alcohol, hopes to reduce alcohol-related incidents in hard-hit countries such as Belarus, Lithuania, and Moldova. In an attempt to reduce the risk of certain NCDs, the WHO’s “best buys” also include further implementation of sustained, population-wide campaigns to promote physical activity and enable support for healthy behavioural change.
Further to this, a register of patients who receive regular prophylactic penicillin is also proposed to support secondary prevention of rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, which currently remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in children and young adults.
Finally, more attention will be given to the management of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and efforts will be made to produce early diagnosis programs for childhood cancers, as well as adult breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers.
Participants of the WHA stressed the need for adopting a human rights-based approach to disability; ensuring accessibility, affordability, quality, and continuity of care; providing rehabilitation and social protection; and mainstreaming disability in all policies and programmes. The EU highlighted “the necessity of ensuring the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination”, so that people with disabilities can face fewer, if any, challenges in their everyday life.
Furthermore, a call for disability-specific health services to include varied specialised rehabilitation services has also been urged by the UN. The resolution, to be led by Israel, aims to help the lives of billions who suffer from conditions that impair their social, mental, or physical functioning, to which the WHO is expected to develop a global rehabilitation baseline report by 2026.
The assembly was a landmark event that marked 75 years of improving public health by the WHO. It also demonstrated the collective commitment of Member States, partners, civil society and WHO staff to address some of the most pressing challenges facing global health today. We hope that the resolutions adopted by the WHA will translate into concrete actions at national, regional, and global levels, that will benefit millions of people around the world.