Regional Committee: Highlights of Day 1


The sixty-second session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe was opened by the outgoing president of the Regional Committee Professor Ogtay Shiraliyev, Minister of Health of Azerbaijan, and began with Lawrence Gonzi, Prime Minister of Malta welcoming delegates, followed by an address by Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Patron of the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

Opening address by the Prime Minister of Malta

Welcoming delegates to Malta, Lawrence Gonzi described the country's long tradition and commitment to health care, from the founding of the Knights Hospitallers “Sacra Infermeria”, one of the world's finest hospitals in the Middle Ages, to the island's humanitarian support during the recent Libyan crisis.

Reflecting that this Regional Committee session comes at an opportune time, the Prime Minister noted, “We are here to discuss public health at a time when the world is not in very good health … Operating in this volatile environment presents governments with a great challenge, often perceived as a threat to health systems. But it gives us an opportunity to stop and think and introduce new systems of governance.”

He explained that Malta has made the conscious decision to invest in the health system infrastructure, equipment and workforce. Investing in educating health professionals and enabling doctors to follow specialized education programmes in the country has reduced the “brain drain” and the loss of individuals to other countries.

Prime Minister Gonzi concluded his address by expressing his Government's endorsement of Health 2020, the new European health policy framework, and stated, “This session will serve as an important catalyst for furthering health care in the European Region.”

Address by Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark

Her Royal Highness began her address to delegates explaining that she became Patron of WHO/Europe in 2005 because of her “strong belief that health is our most precious possession and its protection and promotion are fundamental to the health and well-being of our societies.”

In addition to her extensive support for immunization and maternal and child health, in 2010 Crown Princess Mary agreed to extend her focus to include the challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

Speaking about this issue she noted, “There is no doubt that we are witnessing an increasing number of bacteria becoming resistant, and thereby are moving towards an era that could resemble the situation before penicillin was discovered – when people died of common bacterial infections. A frightening situation – we risk jeopardizing one of the fundamental achievements that brought huge progress to public health … We all have a role to play: those who set the policy and strategies; those who prescribe; those who use; and those who produce, including industry – a role in keeping antibiotics effective for use by future generations.”

In conclusion, the Crown Princess commended countries for the positive health trends and improvements in the WHO European Region and expressed her wish that this Regional Committee session would renew the commitment of health ministries, governments and societies to work together to improve health.

Election of officers

  • Dr Joseph Cassar, Minister for Health, the Elderly and Community Care from Malta was elected President of the sixty-second session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe.
  • Dr Lars-Erik Holm from Sweden was elected Executive President.
  • Ms Dessislava Dimitrova from Bulgaria was elected Deputy Executive President
  • Dr Samir Abdullayev from Azerbaijan was elected Rapporteur.

Address by Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, on the work of WHO/Europe

A comprehensive presentation by Zsuzsanna Jakab detailed the work of WHO/Europe over the past year, recognizing collective achievements with countries and partners, and noting key challenges and the opportunities to address them.

Tackling health inequalities was a consistent theme throughout the presentation, with the Regional Director noting that inequalities are growing, with a gap in life expectancy of 12 years in the Region. Health 2020, the proposed new health policy framework to be discussed at the session tomorrow, strongly supports action to reduce health inequalities and address the root causes of ill health.

“The process of developing Health 2020 and other areas of our work has been fully aligned with the WHO reform process, and reflects the agreed values, approaches and priorities that underpin WHO's work, while at the same time capturing the specific circumstances and needs of our Region and Member States … We believe this value-based and action-oriented Health 2020 policy will inspire development and support action across governments and societies for health and well-being, and will guide us for years to come," stated Zsuzsanna Jakab.

Key recent achievements by WHO/Europe include:

  • the establishment of a new programme on vulnerability and health;
  • a second course on health financing held in Barcelona, Spain, with universal coverage a special focus;
  • a renewed focus on the nursing and midwifery programme;
  • a review of all WHO/Europe databases, including the Health for All database;
  • support to countries in tackling noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), for example assisting Ukraine in developing a national NCD action plan;
  • the publication of “Alcohol in the European Union. Consumption, harm and policy approaches”;
  • the establishment of the European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, covering 200 000 children;
  • a regional meeting on reproductive health services in Latvia, to improve the quality of services available in countries;
  • publication of the latest edition of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study;
  • the celebration of active ageing on World Health Day 2012 and the drafting of a strategy and action plan on healthy ageing in Europe;
  • the implementation of three action plans on multidrug- and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and antibacterial resistance;
  • the certification of Armenia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as malaria-free;
  • the celebration of the 10th anniversary of a polio-free Europe;
  • the participation of all 53 Member States in European Immunization Week 2012;
  • the full functioning of WHO/Europe's emergency operations centre;
  • work with Poland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom to prepare for the health aspects of mass gatherings (the UEFA football championships and London 2012 Olympics);
  • the consolidation of WHO/Europe’s environment and health programmes in Bonn, Germany;
  • strengthened collaboration with a wide range of partners;
  • intensified collaboration with Member States; and
  • a broader communications scope with an active presence on social media platforms.

Plenary discussions on the work of WHO/Europe

Reflecting the common need for efficiencies in times of continued financial austerity, delegates indicated their desire to adopt the health policy framework Health 2020, lauding it for already feeding into increasingly intersectoral national health policies, and providing a good platform for the coordination of activities. They also felt that, driven by the same necessity, the spirit of WHO reform appeared to be spreading through all levels of the Organization, citing many new examples of the synergistic two-way collaboration between Member States and WHO: the support to Member States made by WHO country offices in Poland and Serbia, for instance, or the funding offered by Member States such as Italy, Kazakhstan and Spain for geographically dispersed offices (both existing and proposed). Countries including Estonia and Turkey were commended for sharing technical expertise and experience or hosting international meetings, and Switzerland was thanked for funding a new centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while WHO regions were increasingly sharing experiences, such as the South-East Asian and African regions in polio eradication, or facilitating interregional representation, such as in the European and the Americas regions.

The WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, emphasized that financial austerity would continue so “we must all live within our means”. This meant above all that Member States had to decide on WHO’s priorities. “WHO reform is a joint venture, involving both Member States and all parts of the Organization.”

Technical briefing on the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development

A lunchtime briefing was held to gather feedback from Member States on how to move forward on the recommendations of the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development (CEWG). The CEWG was established in 2010 by the World Health Assembly in response to concerns that insufficient research and development resources were being devoted to target diseases that disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged groups.

The CEWG noted that research and development should be seen as a global public health good, and that there was a need for greater technology transfer to and capacity development in developing countries. It also made various recommendations on how future research and development could be financed, including a proposal for countries to commit a part of their gross domestic product towards government-funded research and development. This proposal generated strong discussions at this year's World Health Assembly and Member States were asked to provide options for moving this forward. Those attending today's briefing agreed to continue web-based discussions.

Address by John Dalli, European Commissioner for Public Health and Consumer Protection

Commissioner Dalli's address outlined the progress that has been made in the two years since WHO and the European Commission signed a declaration on a “shared vision for joint health action” that further strengthened collaboration between the two organizations. The joint declaration has led to a more strategic collaborative approach in six key areas: health security, health innovation, health systems, health inequalities, health information, and cooperation between European Union delegations and WHO offices in countries. Six roadmaps, with specific objectives and priorities for cooperation, have since been developed, with regular meetings to review progress, which is then reported on both organizations' web sites.

Mr Dalli underlined that despite having different mandates and tools, the European Union and WHO share the same values and principles for action on health. “Both organizations are made up of Member States joining forces in the knowledge that together we are stronger and more effective. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he commented.

Signing of joint action plan between the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and WHO/Europe

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, and Yves Leterme, Deputy Director-General of OECD, signed a Joint Action Plan between WHO/Europe and OECD that aims to:

  • stress the important role of public health
  • establish the fiscal sustainability of health
  • enable credible data collection.

With OECD’s expertise in the economics of health combined with WHO’s expertise in how health is generated, the two agencies can be “more persuasive if they act together”. Working with a new network bringing together ministries of health and of finance, the Joint Action Plan will help countries “to deliver greater value for money in health spending,” said Yves Leterme.

The WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, emphasized the need to get across the message that too little is spent on health, that savings should be made before cuts are considered and that money spent on health is an investment. “The joint action of OECD and WHO will give ministries of health the messages they need.”

Highlights for Tuesday include:

  • an address by Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO
  • plenary discussion on a European policy framework supporting action across government for health and well-being, Health 2020