Building on the “spectacular success story” of the 60 per cent reduction in measles deaths since 2000, 10 per cent above target, the United Nations health agency today outlined its ambitious goals of expanding the integrated delivery of immunization and preventive treatment against a whole host of diseases.
“We begin our discussions in what I believe are optimistic times for health,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan told the opening session of the agency’s twice-yearly Executive Board meeting in Geneva.
“The news gets even better,” she said, referring to the measles success and the wider health gains linked to it. “Increasingly, this initiative is delivering a bundle of life-saving and health-promoting interventions: bed nets for malaria, vitamin A to boost the immune system, de-worming tablets that help keep children in school, polio vaccine, and tetanus vaccine for pregnant women.
“I view this initiative as a model of what can be achieved through integrated service delivery. This is a value-added approach that amplifies the power of public health.”
Addressing her first Board meeting since becoming WHO chief earlier this month, Dr. Chan returned to one of her key themes: that the agency’s work should be judged by the impact it has on the health of women and of people in Africa.
“Much of what we are already doing has an impact on women and the African people,” she said. “This is not surprising. The threats to these two groups are numerous. Many of these threats are receiving high-level attention as we strive to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to which I am fully committed.”
The MDGs, which seek to slash a raft of social ills by 2015, specifically target several health goals including cutting child mortality rates by two-thirds and maternal mortality rates by three-quarters, and halving and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
On polio, the paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease that was once every parent’s nightmare but has now been reduced to virtually a memory in all but a few countries, Dr. Chan noted that it was now technically feasible to interrupt its transmission worldwide but the world must tackle the operational and financial obstacles involved.
“I believe we need to assess the country-level operations very carefully to ensure that we can indeed interrupt transmission globally,” she said, adding that she would convene an “urgent high-level consultation” next month to draw up “a set of milestones that must be met if transmission is to be interrupted in the four remaining endemic countries.” The consultation will also consider the funding needed to meet these milestones.
On the current bird flu outbreak and the threat of its possible mutation into a potentially deadly human pandemic, Dr. Chan delivered a “straightforward” message. “We must not let down our guard. The whole world has lived under the imminent threat of an influenza pandemic for more than three years. These years of experience have taught us just how tenacious this H5N1 virus is in birds.”
A report to the Board on the global strategy for preventing and controlling chronic illness, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, concludes that much has been done but more progress is still needed. Last year, 35 million people died from these diseases, 60 per cent of all deaths globally. These deaths are projected to increase by a further 17 per cent over the next decade.
Other issues on the agenda of the nine-day meeting include tuberculosis; gender, women and health; oral health; health systems; and the rational use of medicines, including better medicines for children. Some 10.5 million children under the age of five die every year, mostly from treatable conditions.
The Executive Board comprises representatives from 34 Member States, elected by the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision making body. Its main functions are to give effect to the Assembly decisions.