WHA hears push for bold vaccine leadership, innovations

May 17, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – During the second day of the World Health Assembly (WHA), Microsoft chairman Bill Gates urged delegates to commit their leadership and resources to vaccines, and members heard updates on radiation issues in Japan and plans for World Health Organization (WHO) reforms.

The 64th session of the WHO opened in Geneva yesterday and meets through May 24. The WHA, the WHO's decision-making group, is made up of delegates from 193 countries.

Gates, one of today's keynote speakers, encouraged delegates to use their leadership roles to promote the use of vaccines as tools for saving lives and boosting the potential of the countries' citizens. Gates co-chairs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports and funds measures to enhance healthcare, reduce poverty, and expand educational access to information technology.

In calling for a Decade of Vaccines movement, he praised companies, global health organizations, and governments for their work in targeting new vaccines to poorer countries, such as the meningitis vaccine that has reduced the burden of the disease in some African nations.

He said the Gates Foundation is working with many manufacturers to make sure the vaccines are available at a reasonable price. "I am confident that we can cut the combined price of the pentavalent, pneumococcus, and rotavirus vaccines in half by 2016," he said. "But even when prices are fair, delivering vaccines to every child takes an unwavering commitment."

Gates acknowledged the difficult tasks that health minister face, especially in light of limited resources. "But you all have access to one key resource: your own leadership. And leadership can be decisive," he said. "The best immunization systems work because leaders hold themselves accountable for results. They diagnose problems, innovate to solve them, and spread the best ideas."

Starting next year, the Gates Foundation will begin recognizing an individual or group who make the most innovative contribution to vaccine science, delivery, or funding, he said. "My goal is to make sure that pioneering global health leaders get the credit they deserve."

In a press release e-mailed to journalists, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said it welcomed Gates's comments on the role of vaccines in advancing the WHO and global community health goals.

The group said it is committed to partnering with key stakeholders to invest in the development of innovative, safe, and effective vaccines and by supporting access through mechanisms such as advanced market commitment. "In addition, the benefits of tiered pricing are well established, and individual IFPMA member companies have applied this approach for many years," it said.

Redoubling polio efforts
Global polio eradication efforts have achieved some notable successes, but Gates said the return of the virus to countries where it had earlier been eliminated and shaky funding for immunization programs is discouraging. He urged health leaders to step up their fundraising and intensify immunization campaigns to push cases numbers back down to zero.

To maximize the impact of vaccines on polio and other diseases, Gates called on donor countries to increase vaccine investments, despite budget crises, pharmaceutical companies to ensure that vaccines are affordable to poor countries and to commit to tiered pricing, and member states to make vaccines a central focus of health systems.

At a media briefing at the WHA today, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said US delegates recently met with Gates and other global health officials who are working on polio issues, and she said in a statement that despite progress toward eradication, the situation remains fragile.

"The United States will continue to support coordinated efforts to stop polio, and we know that it's making a difference. We recognize the need for full political ownership and oversight in those countries that are battling ongoing outbreaks," she said. "And we’ll advocate for support and resources at venues including the G-8 and G-20 meetings."

Independent pandemic review
In other developments, a WHA committee adopted a draft resolution commending the work and final report of the independent committee that reviewed the WHO's pandemic performance and how the International Health Regulations (IHRs) functioned during their first trial in a global public health emergency. Gregory Hartl, WHO spokesman, told CIDRAP News that the draft resolution now goes to the full WHA for consideration.

In a discussion on IHRs, the committee agreed that the regulations have shown value in international public health event settings but need to strengthen the world's capacity to respond to chemical and nuclear incidents, the WHO said in its live Twitter feed today.

Proposed WHO reforms
Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general, opened a committee discussion of WHO reforms, the largest in its 63-year history, according to an update on today's proceedings that was posted on the WHO's Web site. "Outdated management structures and approaches threaten to hold us back and make the WHO less influential than it deserves to be," she said.

The reform proposals aren't driven by financial crises, but rather by an opportunity for the WHO to change and become more effective, efficient, responsive, objective, transparent and accountable, Chan said. The WHO said member states welcomed Chan's reform proposal and urged her to move forward on them. It said discussions on the future of WHO financing will continue tomorrow.

Delegates today also heard from Japanese and WHO experts on public health issues related to Japan's radiation emergency, the WHO said in its update.

See also:

May 17 text of Bill Gates speech

May 17 HHS statement

May 17 WHO notes on WHA day 2 proceedings

WHO News Twitter feed

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