June 17, 2024

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Global Health Emergencies Top Agenda of WHO Annual Meeting

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This year’s executive board meeting at the World Health Organization opened at a time of multiplying global health emergencies, but also at a moment when the U.N. health agency can point to “many achievements and milestones” in public health.

“After almost three-and-a-half years in May, I declared an end to both COVID-19 and mpox as global health emergencies, although both remain global threats,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates on Monday.

“More than two-thirds of the global population has now received a complete primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “COVAX, which closed at the end of last year, played a vital role, delivering nearly 2 billion doses and saving an estimated 2.7 million lives in lower-income countries.”

The meeting also opened on a particularly auspicious day — the same day that the first of two WHO-recommended life-saving malaria vaccines were rolled out in Cameroon, the first country in the world to begin routine malaria vaccinations.

WHO reports that more than half a million children under age 5 die from malaria every year, most in Africa.

“Having two vaccines for malaria will help to close the huge gap between demand and supply, and could save tens of thousands of young lives, especially in Africa,” said Tedros.

A nurse administers a malaria vaccine to an infant at the health center in Datcheka, Cameroon, Jan. 22, 2024.

A nurse administers a malaria vaccine to an infant at the health center in Datcheka, Cameroon, Jan. 22, 2024.

The WHO chief presented a snapshot of some of last year’s other achievements in promoting, providing and protecting health. These include progress in reducing the number of smokers in 150 countries worldwide; in supporting more than 50 countries to build climate-resilient, climate-friendly health systems; and in supporting and increasing countries’ access to essential medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and other products.

Additionally, WHO reports that more than 7.5 million people with tuberculosis received access to diagnosis and treatment in 2022, the most in almost 30 years. Tedros said progress also has been made in HIV treatment, noting that more than 75% of people living with HIV globally now receive antiretroviral therapy.

“We are now beginning to see a path towards the [sustainable development goals] target of ending the HIV epidemic,” he said, adding that “Australia became the first country to announce that it is close to the virtual elimination of HIV transmission, in inner Sydney.”

He also said good inroads also were being made in helping countries achieve universal health coverage, based on strong primary health care.

New data published by WHO and the World Bank show that half the world’s population is not fully covered by essential health services, and that “2 billion people face financial hardship due to out-of-pocket health spending.”

Tedros said that countries who attended a high-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September “made more than 50 commitments to progressively expand access to essential health services, and to improve financial protection.”

“Indeed, that is what WHO is doing all over the world,” he said. “Through the Universal Health Coverage Partnership, we are supporting 120 countries to advance towards universal health care,” he said.

The 34-member board meets annually to set the agenda of the World Health Assembly and implement the decisions and policies of that body.

“2024 will be a defining year for global health and for our WHO,” said Tedros. “This year, you have the opportunity to shape the world’s global health strategy for the next four years. This year, you have the opportunity to shape the future of health emergencies.”

Last year, he noted, WHO responded to 65 acute emergencies, from earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, to conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Myanmar, Sudan, Ukraine, and “of course, the occupied Palestinian territory, especially Gaza.”

FILE - A woman sits on the rubble as emergency rescue teams search for people under the remains of destroyed buildings in Nurdagi town on the outskirts of Osmaniye city southern Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023.

FILE – A woman sits on the rubble as emergency rescue teams search for people under the remains of destroyed buildings in Nurdagi town on the outskirts of Osmaniye city southern Turkey, on Feb. 7, 2023.

“We supported countries to access vaccines and treatments to respond to outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, meningitis and yellow fever,” he said. “And emergency medical teams played a vital role in our response to 19 emergencies in 18 countries.”

He flagged the passage of a legally binding pandemic prevention and preparedness agreement at the World Health Assembly in May to be of crucial importance and mentioned that world leaders at the UNGA in September agreed to conclude negotiations on the pandemic agreement and amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) by May.

“I must say I am gravely concerned that member states may not meet that commitment,” he said. “Time is very short, and there are several outstanding issues that remain to be resolved. In my view, a failure to deliver the pandemic agreement and the IHR amendments will be a missed opportunity for which future generations may not forgive us.”

He appealed to all member states “to work with urgency and purpose to reach consensus on a strong agreement that will help to protect our children and grandchildren from future pandemics.”

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