Global perspective Human stories

Progress being made on many fronts, says UN health agency chief

Progress being made on many fronts, says UN health agency chief

Progress in many areas of public health are a cause for optimism, the head of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) told the agency’s Executive Board in Geneva today.

Assessing the events of the past year, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan pointed to three particularly encouraging trends: an increased willingness to invest in health systems; recognition of the reality of climate change by world leaders; and the resurgence of interest in primary health care.

The rise in the eagerness of development partners, UN agencies and funding facilities to devote resources towards health systems is “a striking and welcome change from the past,” Dr. Chan said in her opening address to the Board, which kicked off one of its twice-yearly sessions today.

Regarding climate change, she lauded priority given to the issue by global leaders, and pointed out the impacts of global warming – such as droughts, floods, heat waves, air pollution, malnutrition, population displacement and water-borne diseases – on health.

“We must use every scientifically sound and politically correct mechanism in the book to convince leaders that humanity really is the most important species endangered by climate change,” the Director-General stated.

On primary health care, she said she was heartened by the revival of interest in public health care, especially as a means to achieve the Millennium Developments Goals (MDGs), eight targets to slash poverty and other ills by 2015.

“I believe we will not be able to reach the health-related Millennium Development Goals unless we return to the values, principles, and approaches of primary health care,” Dr. Chan noted to the Board, comprising representatives of 34 WHO Member States.

One of the agency’s recent successes has been the global immunization strategy for children, developed jointly by WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with the help of many Member States and health partners, she said.

Particularly in Africa, there has been a huge drop in deaths from measles. “Progress in 2006 was record-breaking,” the Director-General said. “I believe it is useful to look at what lies behind this achievement and what it promises for the future.”

However, she underscored that instability and civil unrest – which impede access to health services – can potentially roll back gains made in the public health domain.