At WHA, Chan says austerity won't stop health progress

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May 21, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Opening the 65th annual World Health Assembly (WHA) today, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, said she sees a bright future for health development, despite financial crises that many countries are facing, which has shrunk support for many initiatives.

The world's economic situation is uncertain, and health ministries, the WHO, and global health partners are watching their financial bottom lines very closely, she said. "Money is important, but many other factors guide progress in public health," Chan said in her address, which was posted on the WHO's Web site. "During my recent visits to countries, I have seen inspiring examples of success. Striking achievements within countries make me optimistic."

The WHA, witch runs through May 26 in Geneva, is the top decision-making body of the WHO and includes representatives from all member states.

Citing examples of success, Chan said national ownership and leadership by India's government played a key role in changing the prospects for polio elimination, and Ghana's drive to eliminate guinea worm has pushed the disease to its last outpost, South Sudan. She said that during a visit to Oman in April, she saw more than 30 government sectors working on an effort, led by the European Union and WHO, to enhance the country's capacity to respond to outbreaks and other natural disasters.

Chan said the WHO can leverage its leadership role to make the most of small and wise investments, such as helping to coordinate the development of a malaria vaccine and administering a supply of schistosomiasis drugs, donated by a pharmaceutical company, for school-age children in Africa.

Universal health coverage is the best way to maintain health gains that have been made over the past decade, she said, adding that more than 60 countries have sought technical support from the WHO on health system financing.

"Despite deepening financial austerity, the will to do the right thing, the fair thing, for people's health prevails," she said, adding that universal coverage prompts countries to take a close look at waste and inefficiency. "It shifts to thrift," she said.

At the international level, thrift and streamlining can help make the most of aid donated for health initiatives, she said. "Good aid is channeled in ways that strengthen existing infrastructures and capacities. Good aid aims to eliminate the need for aid."

However, she said the inclination to measure how much health can be bought with a given amount of money can be "extremely dangerous" when it comes to balancing the costs of things like vaccine supplies and keeping AIDS patients alive.

Chan also warned of the "relentless rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases" like diabetes and hypertension, calling it "the longest dark shadow."

One of the funding topics on the WHA agenda is polio, which surged in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria in 2011, despite India's success in earlier this year in going a year with no new cases. The WHO is expected to declare polio a global health emergency, because of a perception of complacency along with limited funding to battle the disease in its three primary hotspots, the Telegraph, an online version of the United Kingdom-based Daily Telegraph newspaper, reported today.

Sona Bari, a spokeswoman for the WHO's global polio eradication program, told the Telegraph that the world is faced with a "now or never" moment, which could derail recent gains. "We are really on a tipping point between success and failure," she said.

The global health emergency declaration could attract more funding and perhaps allow polio-free countries to vaccinate people arriving at airports from affected countries, the Telegraph reported.

Among several other agenda items, the WHA will take on a host of housekeeping topics, including issues related to WHO budgets and reforms, and will review working-group reports and examine progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Also, the group will vote on approving the nomination of Chan for a second term as director-general.

See also:

May 21 Margaret Chan speech

Apr 21 Telegraph story

Mar 16 WHA provisional agenda

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