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UN health agency spotlights role of health in sustainable development as governing body begins session

Director-General of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan addresses the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.
Director-General of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan addresses the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

UN health agency spotlights role of health in sustainable development as governing body begins session

Health holds a prominent and central role that benefits the entire sustainable development agenda, because the ultimate objective of all development activities is to sustain human lives in good health, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said today, calling for greater efforts to combat the major challenges of antimicrobial resistance, the world drug problem and the high costs of non-communicable diseases on the road to strengthening health systems.

“We have entered an ambitious new era for health development,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in an address to the sixty-ninth annual session of the World Health Assembly, the agency’s decision-making body.

“WHO, together with its multiple partners, is poised to save many more millions of lives. I ask you to remember this purpose as we go through an agenda that can mean so much for the future,” she added.

Dr. Chan noted that public health constantly struggles to hold infectious diseases at bay, to change lifestyle behaviours, and to find enough money to do these and many other jobs, but sometimes the world needs to “step back and celebrate.”

“Commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) brought focus, energy, creative innovation, and above all money to bear on some of the biggest health challenges that marred the start of this century,” she said.

As such, the world can celebrate the 19,000 fewer children dying every day, a 44 per cent drop in maternal mortality, and the 85 per cent of tuberculosis cases that are successfully cured. Africa, in particular, can celebrate the 60 per cent decline in malaria mortality, while as the result of the fastest scale-up of a life-saving treatment in history, more than 15 million people living with HIV are now receiving antiretroviral therapy, up from just 690,000 in 2000, the Director-General stressed.

“A culture of measurement and accountability evolved to make aid more effective. Greater transparency brought the voice of civil society to bear in holding governments and donors accountable for their promises,” Dr. Chan said.

“The profile of health changed, from a drain on resources to an investment that builds stable, prosperous, and equitable societies,” she added.

An interconnected world leads to global health threats

In an interconnected world characterized by profound mobility of people and goods, few threats to health are local anymore, Dr. Chan said.

Highlighting some of the main global health concerns, the Director-General underscored that air pollution is a transboundary hazard that affects the global atmosphere and contributes to climate change, while drug-resistant pathogens, including the growing number of “superbugs,” travel well internationally in people, animals and food. In addition, the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, especially to children, is now a global phenomenon, while safeguarding the quality of pharmaceutical products has become much harder, with complex manufacturing procedures and supply chains spanning multiple companies and countries, she said.

Moreover, she noted that ensuring the quality of the food supply is also much harder when a single meal can contain ingredients from all around the world, including some potentially contaminated with exotic pathogens. Furthermore, the Ebola outbreak in three small countries had paralyzed the world with fear and travel constraints, while the rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika warns us that an old disease in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency.

“For infectious diseases, you cannot trust the past when planning for the future,” Dr. Chan said.

“Changes in the way humanity inhabits the planet have given the volatile microbial world multiple new opportunities to exploit. There will always be surprises.”

Outbreaks ‘illuminate the fault lines in our collective preparedness’

Outbreaks that become emergencies always reveal specific weaknesses in affected countries and “illuminate the fault lines in our collective preparedness,” Dr. Chan said.

For Ebola, it was the absence of even the most basic infrastructures and capacities for surveillance, diagnosis, infection control and clinical care, unaided by any vaccines or specific treatments.

For its part, Zika reveals an “extreme consequence” of the failure to provide universal access to sexual and family planning services, the Director-General said, noting that Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest proportion of unintended pregnancies anywhere in the world.

Above all, the spread of Zika, the resurgence of dengue, and the emerging threat from chikungunya are the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s, Dr. Chan said.

“Let me give you a stern warning. What we are seeing now looks more and more like a dramatic resurgence of the threat from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The world is not prepared to cope,” she emphasized.

Welcoming the current joint external evaluations that are looking at preparedness and response capacities in several countries, Dr. Chan said the evaluations need to continue with the “utmost urgency,” as a tool under WHO authority and coordination.

“Given what we face right now, and the next surprises that are sure to come, the item on your agenda with the most sweeping consequences, for a danger that can quickly sweep around the world, is the one on the reform of WHO’s work in health emergency management,” she said.

“Few health threats are local anymore. And few health threats can be managed by the health sector acting alone,” she added.

‘Slow-motion disasters’ shaping the global health landscape

In addition, the Director-General highlighted that as the international community enters the era of sustainable development, the global health landscape is being shaped by three “slow-motion disasters”: a changing climate, the failure of more and more mainstay antimicrobials, and the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases as the leading killers worldwide.

“These are not natural disasters. They are man-made disasters created by policies that place economic interests above concerns about the well-being of human lives and the planet that sustains them,” she said. “This is the way the world works. The burning of fossil fuels powers economies.”

“Unchecked, these slow-motion disasters will eventually reach a tipping point where the harm done is irreversible,” she added.

For its part, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is attempting to ensure that these and many other disasters are averted, the Director-General said.

“The agenda aims to do nothing less than transform the way the world, and the international systems that govern it, work,” Dr. Chan said.

“Health holds a prominent and central place that benefits the entire agenda. In the final analysis, the ultimate objective of all development activities, whether concerning the design of urban environments or the provision of modern energy to rural areas, is to sustain human lives in good health,” she added.

The World Health Assembly, which meets every May, is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States. Its main functions are to determine the policies of the health agency, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget.