Update 2 of the World Health Assembly: highlights for the WHO European Region

The first week of the Seventy-second World Health Assembly covered a range of topics and resulted in 3 resolutions on universal health coverage (UHC). The resolutions focus on: primary health care, the role of community health workers and the September United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on UHC. Member States at the World Health Assembly also agreed a resolution calling for continued high-level commitments to implement and adequately resource multisectoral national action plans on antimicrobial resistance. Member States of the WHO European Region contributed to plenary discussions and other events throughout the week, with highlights of their participation outlined below.

Plenary addresses

The plenary discussion about key strategic priorities for WHO stretched over the first few days of the Assembly, with dozens of European countries expressing support for UHC, highlighting successes in their countries and also emphasizing areas that demand stronger focus or greater action. Member States that made interventions included: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Many countries underscored their commitment to supporting WHO in its efforts to lead the way on major health issues, and some countries highlighted the important role that WHO/Europe specifically plays in implementing WHO policies and priorities at the country level, including UHC.

During a discussion about preparedness for and response to public health emergencies, the Director-General provided an update on the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A report was also provided by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme (WHE), and a number of European Member States made interventions on the topic of the WHE, and WHO’s work on health emergencies more broadly. These included Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Israel, Netherlands, Russian Federation, Spain and the United Kingdom. Most countries commended the WHE for its role in preparing countries for and responding to health emergencies, often noting their country’s contribution – for example, through emergency medical teams – to the Ebola response and other emergency situations. Some statements also emphasized the continuing importance of the International Health Regulations.

A number of Member States made interventions during discussion of the agenda item on polio eradication, welcoming the work of WHO and the new eradication strategy. Many spoke about the shift needed to achieve the eradication goal – enhancing community-based work to avoid misinformation about vaccines and to reduce violence towards community workers. They also highlighted the importance of shifting fully to inactivated polio vaccine at affordable prices.

Countries also debated WHO’s programme budget and impact framework agenda in plenary, with interventions made by Belgium, Finland (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Germany, Israel, Monaco, Norway, Romania (on behalf of the European Union), Russian Federation, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Member States confirmed that the budget is headed in the right direction, but some still expressed concerns that it should have realistic targets and requires additional adjustments. In response, the Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab underscored that the proposed programme budget is fully aligned with the 13th General Programme of Work and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will support making the new vision for WHO a reality, measures outcome and impact rather than inputs, and focuses particularly on country-level work.

Bilateral meetings

  • Faroe Islands: The minister of health of the Faroe Islands, and the Acting WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Piroska Ӧstlin discussed the Small Countries Initiative and Regions for Health Network, and they explored ways in which the Faroe Islands can potentially take part in the future. Dr Ӧstlin thanked the minister for the country’s good collaboration with Denmark, particularly in the area of digitalization of the health system. This year marks the first time that representatives from the Faroe Islands have attended the World Health Assembly.
  • Kyrgyzstan: The minister of health of Kyrgyzstan provided an update on the status of the country’s health reform, of which the core element is ensuring UHC. The country has also initiated a new law on the regulation of medical pricing, along with work on electronic prescriptions. The minister asked for further assistance in the area of eHealth, as well as in the areas of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV control. Dr Ӧstlin suggested that WHO help organize a study visit to countries that are particularly experienced in the area of eHealth, and Dr Masoud Dara, Acting Director, Communicable Diseases, WHO/Europe offered support on TB, HIV and hepatitis control.
  • Ukraine: The minister of health of Ukraine expressed satisfaction with the WHO Country Office’s responsiveness to the country’s needs, particularly amid its health system transformation. The minister highlighted key achievements, such as doubling the health-care budget and progress being made on several new plans – including the country’s cancer programme, spanning prevention through palliative care – and towards the SDGs. Nursing reform will also be undertaken in Ukraine next year, with a new system being introduced in January 2020. The minister also highlighted challenges, such as the upcoming closure of hundreds of hospitals and the need to transition to new solutions. Dr Ӧstlin congratulated the minister on progress made, and she and Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director, Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-Course, WHO/Europe, suggested that an upcoming meeting on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in Ukraine will provide a good opportunity to discuss further WHO support on NCDs.

Technical briefings and side events

Technical briefings took place on emerging technologies, UHC, mental health, investing in jobs, and the role of parliaments in moving the UHC agenda forward. At the latter, Dr Jakab said WHO is excited to work more closely with parliamentarians and to create a systematic dialogue with them. Delegates from Georgia and Romania echoed the importance of involving parliamentarians and encouraging close collaboration with WHO.

European Member States also organized and participated in a range of side events on topics including: patient safety and quality of care in the face of emergencies and extreme adversity; access to medicines, vaccines and health products; partnerships for health system strengthening and emergency preparedness; water, sanitation and hygiene as a priority for quality health care; innovative financing for global NCDs; nutrition for health; and boosting community-led responses to reaching marginalized communities, among others.

The World Health Assembly continues through 28 May 2019.