Day 1 highlights: RC66 opens – health central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development


Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess of Denmark and the WHO Regional Director for Europe opened the 66th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe (RC66), welcoming over 400 delegates to Copenhagen, Denmark. The overarching theme was the central role of health in “leaving no one behind” as countries embark on implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Election of officers

  • Dr Kristján Þór Júlíusson, Minister of Health of Iceland, was elected President of RC66
  • Dr Benoît Vallet, of France, was elected Executive President
  • Ms Dagmar Reitenbach, of Germany, was elected Deputy Executive President
  • Mr Edouard Salakhov, of the Russian Federation, was elected Rapporteur

Address by Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess of Denmark

In her address, Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess of Denmark highlighted that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its explicit goal to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, resonates with the assets people value most highly: good health and happiness. She underlined the economic, social and environmental benefits of ensuring healthy lives, and emphasized that a specific focus on women and girls is vital.

“I share the belief that girls and women are key to building healthy, prosperous and sustainable societies and communities … Our ability to achieve truly transformative change and results across all 17 goals is dependent on the realization of gender equality and significant progress for girls and women”, she said. The Crown Princess identified the Strategy on women’s health and well-being in the WHO European Region and the European action plan for sexual and reproductive health and rights as useful tools and guidance for Member States in this regard..

Opening comments by Ms Sophie Løhde, Minister for Health of Denmark

Minister Løhde welcomed delegates to Copenhagen for RC66, noting that “a strong WHO is more important than ever before if we want to tackle health threats around the world”. She expressed her specific support for the European framework for action on integrated health services delivery, to be discussed on 13 September, and the global action plan on dementia on the agenda at next year’s World Health Assembly. Referring to the shared challenge of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), the Minister mentioned Denmark’s recently agreed 4th National Cancer Plan, as well as the country’s stated aim to achieve the first smoke-free generation by 2030.

Address by Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe

Dr Jakab took delegates on a journey through the health landscape of the Region, describing key achievements and outlining remaining challenges. She noted that Health 2020 is fully aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that it guides work towards the ultimate goal of ensuring better, more equitable and sustainable health for people in the Region. The Regional Director mapped out WHO/Europe’s efforts to improve how it works through stronger collaborative and intersectoral networks for small countries, subregions and cities; better health information systems; an action plan for collaborating centres with training courses and summer schools; intensive work with partners; an agreed framework on working with non-state actors; and the new, operational Health Emergencies Programme.

“The SDGs give us a wonderful platform to establish a coalition for health, led by WHO, engaging relevant [United Nations] agencies and working with Member States”, she stated. These enhancements to WHO/Europe’s recognized role and ways of working are in response to our “uncertain and demanding times”.

Regarding the agenda for RC66, Dr Jakab drew delegates’ attention to the European strategy and action plan on refugee and migrant health, which she hoped would lead to a global framework; to the first-ever action plan in response to viral hepatitis; and to the potential of following the life-course approach to health through the Strategy on women’s health and well-being and the European action plan for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“With political will and sustained technical and professional commitment, we shall continue to make progress towards, in essence, giving health and well-being its rightful place in our human development”, she concluded.

Plenary discussion

Slovakia, currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, spoke on behalf of the European Union and its Member States, and placed a particular focus on WHO reform. The delegate of Slovakia called for the Region to lead in the area of governance reform, and for the Secretariat to rationalize and prioritize its work regarding action plans and strategies.

Many countries expressed thanks to the Regional Director for her and WHO/Europe’s continued support, both at regional and country levels. They recognized Health 2020 as a useful vision and framework and, in the words of the delegate of Turkey, “a link between the Millennium Development Goal and Sustainable Development Goal eras”.

Delegates from several Member States touched on other issues, including the need to speed the implementation of a single health information system for the Region; to address NCDs, and in particular tobacco and alcohol control; to address issues related to an ageing population and dementia in particular; to find joint solutions for climate and health; and to work together to address antimicrobial resistance. They also welcomed the creation of the new Health Emergencies Programme.

Ms Alanna Armitage, Regional Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for eastern Europe and central Asia addressed plenary, commenting “We are a proud partner of WHO/Europe in moving the Health 2020 vision into action, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health”.

Mr Christian Friis-Bach, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, spoke of working across the United Nations family and the need to “break down silos and work in synergy for the 2030 Agenda”.

Mr Michel Kazatchkine, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, thanked the Regional Director for stressing the alarming growth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in eastern European and central Asian countries. On the same theme, Mr Vinay Patrick Saldanha, Director of the Regional Support Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), indicated that this is not a time for “business as usual”. He offered support from UNAIDS for countries to achieve zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

Eliminating communicable diseases

During a ministerial lunch on communicable diseases, countries agreed that sustained political commitment is critical to meeting targets for eliminating measles, rubella and mother-to-child transmission of HIV, as well as keeping the Region free of poliovirus and malaria. They noted that surveillance, prevention and treatment are even more challenging when migrants and refugees are on the move and people are internally displaced; as communicable diseases know no borders, collaborative efforts and a common approach among countries are essential.

Technical briefing on aligning the monitoring framework for Health 2020 with the SDGs

Participants in a lunchtime meeting learned more about the work of the European Health Information Initiative (EHII), a multistakeholder network of 25 Member States, regional and national institutions and associations. EHII’s mission is to improve health and well-being in the Region by informing decision-making through the promotion, generation and use of technically sound information, and to work towards a single, integrated health information system for the Region. Presenters outlined recent efforts to align the monitoring frameworks of Health 2020 and the SDGs.

Report of the Twenty-third SCRC

Dr Benoit Vallet, Chairperson of the Twenty-third Standing Committee of the Regional Committee (SCRC), presented an overview of their work. Dr Vallet explained that the function of the SCRC is to provide a link for Member States between RC sessions. In preparation for RC66, the SCRC paid special attention to the structure and time available to each agenda item.

The life-course approach to health and the Minsk Declaration

As the host of the WHO European Ministerial Conference on the Life-course Approach in the Context of Health 2020, held in Minsk in October 2015, Dr Vasily Zharko, Minister of Health of Belarus, introduced this agenda item. Dr Zharko noted that the Minsk Declaration has resulted in governments’ better understanding of the importance of investing in their people and future generations through a life-course approach, which encourages them to “act early, act in time and act together”.  

Delegates unanimously adopted the official resolution on the Minsk Declaration.

WHO reform: progress and implications for the Region

Dr Jakab spoke about the progress of WHO reform in the Region. She pointed to WHO/Europe’s 2010 reorganization of the structure of health security-related work in order to bring together 3 programmes involved in all-hazards health emergency management: Alert and Response Operations, Country Emergency Preparedness and International Health Regulations (IHR) Coordination.

Regarding the WHO Framework of engagement with non-state actors (FENSA), Dr Jakab affirmed that the challenge ahead is consistent implementation. She said that WHO/Europe will prepare a renewed partnership strategy for RC67.

On behalf of SCRC, Ms Dagmar Reitenbach commended WHO/Europe on the substantive work done to advance WHO reform. She added that WHO/Europe should also continue leading on governance reform.

Iceland, reiterating earlier comments made by Slovakia, expressed concern over the number of action plans proposed, and questioned whether these overburden both WHO/Europe and Member States. Several other Member States supported this comment. They also expressed the need for regional adaptations to global strategies, and shared concerns over the automatic adoption of global agreements. Iceland proposed the development of principles on these issues for RC67. The Regional Director noted that the right balance needs to be struck, and that a strategic discussion on which technical issues to develop into action plans is required.

Events prior to the opening of RC66

Briefing on the WHO Health Emergencies Programme and accelerating implementation of the IHR

Participants of this informal session received an overview of the newly established WHO Health Emergencies Programme, including its organizational structure, its implementation in the Region and its 24/7 response operations. The session offered a snapshot of WHO/Europe’s response to both acute and protracted emergencies, including poliovirus outbreaks in Israel, Tajikistan and Ukraine, humanitarian crises in the Syrian Arab Republic and Ukraine, and emerging threats such as the Zika virus.

Participants also received an update on WHO/Europe’s actions within the revised IHR monitoring and evaluation framework, and the vision of strengthening health systems in the Region for IHR implementation.

In discussions, many countries reiterated the need for a single WHO Health Emergency Programme across the 3 levels of the Organization. They also emphasized the importance of WHO coordinating the IHR monitoring and evaluation process, including its financial resources. Concluding the session, Dr Jakab commented: “We consider the IHR as the definitive framework for WHO’s and countries’ work in health emergencies and call on everyone to accelerate its implementation”.

Briefing on preparations for the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

Delegates learned more about preparations for the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, set to take place in Ostrava, Czech Republic on 13–15 June 2017. There are 7 emerging priority areas currently being negotiated for the Conference: ensuring the environmental sustainability of health systems; safe and sustainable water and sanitation; making European cities sustainable and resilient to global environmental change; improving air quality; eliminating threats to human health for countries in transition to the circular economy; strengthening resilience to climate change; and promoting chemical safety.

Briefing for NGOs

34 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are attending RC66, and a briefing provided them with an overview of the agenda, further information on FENSA and information on engaging on social media at this year’s session.

Day 2 highlights:

  • Health in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a midterm progress report on Health 2020 implementation
  • Framework for action on integrated health services delivery
  • European strategy and action plan on refugee and migrant health
  • European action plan for sexual and reproductive health and rights