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WHO Director Advocates Strong Health Systems, Warns Against Profit-Oriented Mechanisms

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The World Health Assembly opened today with World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan repeating that this year has a record number of agenda items and over 3,000 participants. She slapped at profit-seeking mechanisms leading to “slow-motion disasters,” which put economic interests above concerns about well-being.

In particular, she underlined the lack of research and development for antimicrobial treatments and the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases.

On the side of the assembly, a new initiative to tackle neglected tropical diseases was launched by the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

The 69th World Health Assembly (WHA) is taking place from 23-28 May.

In her opening remarks, Chan praised health achievements, such as decline in malaria mortality in Africa, and the fact that 15 million people living with HIV are now receiving antiretroviral therapy, up from about 650,000 in 2000. “That’s quite an achievement!” she said.

However, a number of pressing issues remain on the global health agenda, such as drug-resistant pathogens including the growing number of “superbugs,” and infectious diseases causing new concerns, such as the Ebola and Zika viruses, as well as resurgence of treatable diseases such as yellow fever.

In an interconnected world, “very few threats to health are local anymore,” she said, citing as example the Ebola outbreak affecting three small countries but paralysing the world “with fear and travel constraints.”

“The rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika virus warns us that an old disease that slumbered for six decades in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency,” she said.

She underlined the importance of strong health systems to act as a first line of defence for countries, in particular in those occurrences when there is no treatment or diagnosis yet available, and the importance of the implementation of the International Health Regulations.

“WHO is the organisation with universal legitimacy to implement the International Health Regulations,” she said, and stressed the WHA agenda item on the reform of WHO’s work in health emergency management.

Slow-Motion Disasters

Chan underlined what she called the “slow-motion disasters”: a changing climate, the failure of more and more mainstay antimicrobials, and the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases as the leading killers worldwide.

“These are not natural disasters. They are man-made disasters created by policies that put economic interests above concerns about the well-being of human lives and the planet that sustains them,” she said.

“Medicines for treating chronic conditions are more profitable than a short course of antibiotics that is why there is no investment,” she added. For antimicrobial resistance, we are on the verge of a post-antibiotic era in which common infectious diseases once again will kill,” she said.

“Unchecked, these slow-motion disasters will eventually reach a tipping point where the harm done is irreversible,” she warned.

Victories to Celebrate

Chan applauded the United Kingdom recent legislation on plain packaging for tobacco products. “More countries are exercising their legal right to mandate plain packaging for tobacco products, with the UK being the latest on the list of countries,” she said. “Keep up the good work!” she said.

“These are critical victories. No country can hope to bring down the burden of non-communicable diseases in the absence of a strong legislation for tobacco control,” she said.

She also complimented WHO member states for being “on the verge of delivering a solid framework for engagement with non-state actors that will mainstream a major area of reform.”

New WHO AFRO Initiative to Tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases

Today a new initiative was launched on the side of the WHA. The Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN) is a partnership hosted and managed by WHO Regional Office for Africa (AFRO).

ESPEN is dedicated to reducing the burden of the five most prevalent neglected tropical diseases (NTD) on the African continent, according to the AFRO website. Those five NTD are the following: lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminths and trachoma.

According to the project, ESPEN “will provide technical and fundraising support to endemic countries to help control and eliminate” those NTD. The project is expected to run from 2016 to 2020. The African region bears about forty percent of the global burden of NTDs, and all the 47 countries of the AFRO region are endemic for at least two NTDs, according to AFRO.

According to an ESPEN document [pdf] “Under the leadership of the Regional Director and the AFRO team, ESPEN will facilitate a robust engagement with all local contributors and implementers to assess collectively how best to implement national NTD plans through: 1) maximizing the effective use of existing resources and technical contributions at the local level, 2) identifying where funding and technical gaps exist, 3) providing complementary support (both technical and financial) where critically necessary, and 4) identifying funding opportunities and investment targets for in-country programme sustainability.”

The document further states that in 2016, ESPEN will focus notably on acquiring appropriate staffing, providing continued technical support to member states on NTDs, and develop and advocacy and resource mobilisation plan to fund the five-year project.

“AFRO, with support from the NTD community and ESPEN’s Steering Committee, will seek funding from bilaterals, multilaterals, public and private foundations, philanthropists and global implementing partners.” according to the document.

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