Dr Tedros Calls On Member States To Step Up Political Leadership & Investment For Health Impact

Health is about political leadership, partnership and people, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said today in his opening address of the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva, adding that these three priorities must guide discussions not only this week, but throughout the next year.

The WHO Director-General also emphasised that WHO must balance urgent responses to health crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with greater investments in prevention and primary health care.

While “we have a moral duty to respond urgently and effectively to outbreaks and other emergencies,” Dr Tedros said, “it makes no sense either morally or economically to continue spending money responding to emergencies, without investing in preventing them.”

In his address, Dr Tedros detailed the range of impacts delivered by WHO in 2018, including progress made toward universal health coverage, building commitment for increased investment in primary health care, successes and challenges in responding to health emergencies, and the extensive normative guidance on health provided to member states. He encouraged the Assembly to review the 2018 WHO Results Report for “a much more detailed and easy-to-read account of the impact we have delivered.”

He also highlighted the wide-ranging reforms made to WHO at the Executive Board meeting earlier this year, which brought forward a new WHO strategy, processes, operating model, culture, and approach to partnerships – all aimed at reducing bureaucracy, increasing agility and achieving outcomes and impact.

He referenced the WHO General Programme of Work (GPW 2019-2023) approved at the Assembly last year, and called upon member states to approve the ambitious budget to fund this work over the next year, to ensure that WHO can deliver “results for the people we serve, and value for money for those who entrust resources to us.”

Finally, he announced the new Goodwill Ambassadors for the next year:

  • Her Excellency former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of Liberia, was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Health Workforce;
  • Mr Alisson Becker, goalkeeper for Brazil and Liverpool, together with his wife Dr Natália Loewe Becker, were appointed Goodwill Ambassadors for Health Promotion; and
  • Ms Cynthia Germanotta, who with her daughter, Lady Gaga, is the founder of the Born This Way Foundation, was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health.

Efficiency and Impact Through Prevention and Preparedness

The theme of efficiency and impact, which was constant throughout Dr Tedro’s address, is also reflected in WHO’s triple billion targets, established last year in WHO’s Global Plan of Work for the years 2019-2023, which aim for one billion more people to benefit from universal health coverage; one billion more people to be better protected from health emergencies; and one billion more people to enjoy better health and well-being.

An essential component of reaching these targets, Dr Tedros said in his address today, is a greater emphasis both on prevention and preparedness. This is exemplified by WHO’s recent push for improved primary health care, to reduce the onset of disease and disability, and its lessons learned from fighting the Ebola epidemic in the DRC.

“Primary health care is where the battle for human health is won and lost.” he said. “Strong primary health care is the front line in defending the right to health, including sexual and reproductive rights. It’s through strong primary health care that countries can prevent, detect and treat noncommunicable diseases. It’s through strong primary health care that outbreaks can be detected and stopped before they become epidemics. And it’s through strong primary health care that we can protect children and fight the global surge in vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”

Dr Tedros further underlined that WHO “will save more lives and more money if we support countries to put in place the measures to prepare for and prevent emergencies, instead of waiting for them to happen.” To better support member states to increase preparedness, WHO set up a new division specifically for emergency preparedness, as part of its reform process earlier this year, to work in tandem with its existing work on emergency response.

Health Outcomes and Progress in 2018

In his address, Dr Tedros highlighted the significant progress WHO made in building health systems and fighting against many of the world’s leading causes of death and disease.

The world has already made great progress towards universal health coverage, he said, citing new UHC programmes and laws in Kenya, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Egypt, El Salvador and Greece, along with stories of the positive impact of these programmes and laws on people’s health and well-being.

He then discussed the significant challenges faced in the fight against the Ebola outbreak in the DRC, noting that “we are not just fighting a virus… We’re fighting insecurity. We’re fighting violence. We’re fighting misinformation. We’re fighting mistrust. And we’re fighting the politicization of an outbreak.”

These challenges, he said, should not overshadow the successes. “So far we have vaccinated more than 120,000 people. And we now have evidence that the vaccine is more than 97 percent effective in preventing Ebola. We also have 4 experimental treatments that we’ve used to treat 800 patients,” he said, adding that “[e]very life lost is a tragedy. But every life saved is a triumph.”

Ebola was not the only emergency last year, he said, noting that WHO responded to 481 emergencies and potential emergencies in 141 countries in 2018, including the cholera outbreak in Yemen, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, and polio eradication efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Other important successes of the past year include progress in the fight against malaria. “Just last month, we celebrated a historic milestone in the fight against one of the world’s most ancient diseases, with the launch of the world’s first malaria vaccine in Malawi and Ghana,” he said, adding that last year, “Uzbekistan and Paraguay were certified as being malaria free, and at this Assembly, Argentina and Algeria will join them.”

He highlighted that the world also made strides in preventing noncommunicable diseases this past year, with a landmark Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in October; the introduction of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which he called “a powerful new tool in the fight against the evil of big tobacco;” and the commitment of the International Food and Beverage Alliance to eliminate industrial trans-fat from their global food supply by 2023.

Finally, Dr Tedros spoke on the extensive work WHO accomplished over the past year to produce “hundreds of new normative products that are being integrated into health systems all over the world, to protect and promote health.”

The normative guidance produced by WHO over the past year includes the 11th Edition of the International Classification of Diseases; the prequalification of 200 health products; the first Essential Diagnostics List; a new Framework for Action on Quality Midwifery Education; a new strategy on snakebite envenoming; the Global Status Report on Road Safety; the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity; the first guidelines on dementia and cognitive decline; and the first guidelines on digital health, among many others.

“Over the course of the next nine days, we will all do a lot of talking – maybe too much talking! But we must also listen,” Dr Tedros said. “And we must listen to the voices of those who are not here. Those who have no voice. Those who have been left behind. It is them we are here to serve.”

“The people of the world are looking to us to deliver results,” he said. “And the people of the world will hold us accountable for those results.”

Image Credits: WHO/Laurent Cipriani.

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