Health must be a part of any future global development agenda, a senior United Nations official underscored today as she outlined a host of issues afflicting millions around the world and which impact on efforts to reduce poverty and advance overall well-being.
“Better health is a good way to track the world’s true progress in poverty elimination, inclusive growth and equity,” Director-General Margaret Chan said as the World Health Organization (WHO) opened its annual assembly in Geneva.
According to a WHO report released last week, substantial progress has been made on many health-related goals ahead of the 2015 target date for achieving the anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
These include halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of drinking water, as well as progress in reducing child mortality, improving nutrition and combating HIV.
“For the post-2015 agenda, I see many signs of a desire to aim even higher, with ambitious yet feasible goals. Many more end-games are already on the table,” Dr. Chan said, noting the need to end preventable maternal, neonatal and childhood deaths, eliminate a large number of the neglected tropical diseases, and halt the tuberculosis epidemic.
“We have at our disposal a host of strategies for pursuing ever higher goals,” she added, while also noting that health benefits from WHO’s ability to tap the world’s best expertise.
Outlining the main health challenges facing the world today, the Director-General cited the renewed spread of the polio virus, which is due to several factors including civil unrest, poor immunization coverage and the targeted killing of health workers.
“Two years ago, polio was on its knees, thanks to committed political leadership, better strategies and tools, and the dedication of millions of polio workers,” she stated.
“The factors responsible for this setback are largely beyond the control of the health sector. They are only some of several dangers for health in a world shaped by some universal and ominous trends.”
Among other issues, Dr. Chan highlighted the effects of air pollution, which is the world’s largest single environmental health risk; the growing prevalence of obesity, especially among children, and diet-related non-communicable diseases; and the global cancer crisis, in which the number of new cases has reached an all-time high and is projected to rise.
“Parts of the world are quite literally eating themselves to death. Other parts starve. Hunger and under-nutrition remain an extremely stubborn problem… At the other extreme, we see no good evidence that the prevalence of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases is receding anywhere. Highly processed foods and beverages loaded with sugar are ubiquitous, convenient and cheap. Childhood obesity is a growing problem with especially high costs.”
The 2014 World Cancer Report, issued by WHO, provoked considerable alarm, noting among other things that developing countries now account for some 70 per cent of all cancer deaths. Many of these people die without treatment, not even pain relief.
“No country anywhere, no matter how rich, can treat its way out of the cancer crisis. A much greater commitment to prevent is needed,” Dr. Chan emphasized. “The same is true for heart disease, diabetes and chronic lung diseases. In some middle-income countries, diabetes treatment alone is now absorbing nearly half of the entire health budget.”
“All of these trends,” she stated, “are certain to increase the world’s inequalities even more. They define the tremendous job that lies ahead for public health. They also shape expectations for the performance of WHO, and the support countries, and the international community, will need from this organization.”