World Health Assembly Day 1: outgoing Director-General Chan says “reducing inequalities” should guide future health work

WHO/L. Cipriani

Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, addresses delegates at the Seventieth World Health Assembly.

Some 3500 delegates from WHO’s 194 Member States – including a large proportion of the world’s health ministers – are attending the Seventieth World Health Assembly, which ends on 31 May. They are debating ways to advance the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on building better systems for health.

In a plenary address during the opening, Head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs of Switzerland Dr Alain Berset outlined the 5 elements of the 2030 Agenda – people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnership – and how they relate to health. He underlined the importance of gender parity, better access to sexual and reproductive rights for women, and social inclusion, as well as building partnerships and engaging with non-state and national partners. Dr Berset concluded by thanking Dr Margaret Chan for seeking dialogue with stakeholders and establishing new platforms for engagement while reinforcing WHO’s independence.

Opening address by Director-General

In her final opening address to the World Health Assembly, Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, called on the Health Assembly to make “reducing inequalities” a guiding ethical principle. “WHO stands for fairness,” she said. Countries should also work to improve collection of health data and make health strategies more accountable.

Protecting scientific evidence should form “the bedrock of policy”, said Dr Chan, citing vaccine refusal as one of the reasons that the “tremendous potential of vaccines is not yet fully realized”.

She stressed the importance of continued innovation, citing the research partnership between WHO and others to produce an effective and highly affordable meningitis A vaccine that has transformed the lives of millions of people in Africa. “Meeting the ambitious targets in the Sustainable Development Goals depends on innovation,” she said.

She then asked governments and partners to safeguard WHO’s integrity in all stakeholder engagements, stating that “The Framework for engagement with non-state actors is a prime instrument for doing so.” She urged them to “listen to civil society”, adding that “Civil society organizations are best placed to hold governments and businesses, like the tobacco, food and alcohol industries, accountable. They are the ones who can give the people who suffer the most a face and a voice.”

In closing, Dr Chan asked government representatives to “Remember the people. … Behind every number is a person who defines our common humanity and deserves our compassion, especially when suffering or premature death can be prevented.”

Russian Federation elected President of the Seventieth World Health Assembly

Professor Veronika Skvortsova, Minister of Healthcare of the Russian Federation, was elected President of this year’s World Health Assembly.

Following her election, Professor Skvortsova underlined the importance of achieving health for all throughout the life-course, as indicated in the 2030 Agenda, and the Russian Federation’s long-standing commitment to addressing noncommunicable diseases. She also drew delegates’ attention to the global WHO conference on tuberculosis in the context of the SDGs, to be held in Moscow in November this year.

Director-General election

On 23 May 2017, Member States will elect a new Director-General, who will take office for a 5-year term on 1 July 2017.

Highlights for the WHO European Region

Plenary addresses

  • Speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU) in plenary, a delegate of Malta recognized the progress made on WHO reform and welcomed more decisive action by Member States in addressing governance issues. Malta identified eradicating poverty, promoting employment and addressing inequities as key priorities for the next Director-General, and concluded by underlining the continuing commitment of EU Member States in strengthening WHO and global health.
  • On behalf of the G20, the delegate of Germany expressed the group’s deep commitment to the ambitious 2030 Agenda, and recognized the need for new ways of working that emphasize partnership. Priorities for the G20 include solving crises that impact health and fighting antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Strong and resilient health systems are critical for economic activity and prosperous, stable societies, according to Germany. The delegate explained that WHO’s role is to coordinate this health-related SDG work, and that it must seize this unique opportunity for a new leadership role.
  • The United Kingdom’s delegate underlined the country’s continuing commitment to WHO, and noted how new health challenges are shifting from communicable to noncommunicable diseases. The delegate explained the need to demonstrate the role of WHO and the ways in which it connects with the choices individuals make on, for example, antibiotics and hand-washing. According to the United Kingdom, empowering doctors on the ground and understanding local communities will allow us to deal with the current and future health issues of our complex societies.
  • A delegate of Finland emphasized the country’s full commitment to the SDGs, which represent a comprehensive approach to achieving a healthy life for all at all ages. The delegate noted that primary health care and assessments of health services are crucial. Finland is currently undergoing health reform that will see health and social services come together under one ministry and budget, with the aim of achieving equal access, reducing inequalities and ensuring cost control.

Side events

  • Representatives of the Swedish and Finnish delegations presented at a side event entitled “Gearing up towards sustainable health development by 2030”. Finland described its long history of intersectoral collaboration, and the importance of seeking a commitment from individuals and institutions to a common vision for society in 2050. The delegate explained that Finland is currently developing a new national health programme and undertaking reforms to reduce inequalities and bridge the sustainability gap due to an ageing population. The delegate of Sweden described the establishment of a commission to support SDG implementation in national action plans, and explained that providing inspiration and strategic direction at the national level is important for encouraging local initiatives.
  • The delegations of Canada and Switzerland co-chaired a side event about attacks on health care. In 2016, there were over 600 attacks on health care facilities globally. A year ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2286 strongly condemning attacks against medical facilities and personnel in conflict situations. WHO is leading data collection and monitoring the attacks, but further work with Member States is needed to validate the data.

Bilateral meetings

  • During a bilateral meeting with Dr Valery Malashko, Minister of Health of Belarus, and Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, the Regional Director noted the positive investment in modern technology taking place in the country. Dr Jakab praised the country’s work in leading the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, giving high priority to health and well-being. The Minister presented a report on health developments in Belarus, underlining a decreasing mortality rate among children and falling levels of child abuse. Dr Jakab invited the Minister to WHO/Europe.
  • Dr George Pamboridis, Minister of Health of Cyprus, explained during a meeting with Dr Jakab that the Parliament will vote on Cyprus’s health reform in the coming weeks. The recent establishment of a committee focusing on access to medicines was also welcomed in discussions.
  • At a meeting with Dr Maris Jesse, Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, Dr Jakab reiterated WHO’s support during Estonia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which will begin in July this year. Health topics on the Presidency agenda will include alcohol, cross-border issues, consumer information including labelling, and AMR. Electronic health (eHealth) will also remain in focus, building on the momentum of the Maltese Presidency.