World Health Assembly Opens Amid Tragedies, Crises and Opportunities

2008-05-20 09:42 658

GENEVA, May 20 /Xinhua-PRNewswire/ -- As the 61st World Health Assembly opened today in Geneva, Switzerland, officials from 193 countries began the annual task of reviewing progress and setting new priorities for one of the most powerful tools in global public health, the World Health Organization (WHO). The event marks the 60th year of the international collaborative effort to relieve the burden of disease globally. But the mood of the anniversary meeting was sombre as the loss of life in the Myanmar cyclone and the China earthquake remained uncertain but certainly immense.

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"We are meeting at a time of tragedy," WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, told the 2,500 delegates in the Assembly Hall of the Palais des Nations as she opened the meeting. "Unfortunately, looking ahead, we must all brace ourselves for more humanitarian crises in the immediate and near future."

Dr Chan provided the delegates with a stark survey of health challenges -- from ancient afflictions to future human health impacts of climate change. She reported on the mixed progress towards polio eradication and expressed the hope of overcoming the economic barriers that sometimes stand in the way of future public health achievements.

In the wake of recent disasters, Dr Chan looked ahead at three looming crises. Already apparent is a crisis of soaring food prices which could undermine the foundation of health and adequate nutrition. Climate change is a crisis on the horizon which is expected to bring more droughts, floods and tropical storms, and greater demands for humanitarian assistance. In both cases, the poor are at greatest risk. A third crisis, pandemic influenza, lurks in the future. Said Dr Chan: "The threat has by no means receded, and we would be very unwise to let down our guard or slacken our preparedness measures."

The existing list of health problems still press nations and strain resources:

While deaths from AIDS have declined in the last two years, a staggering 33.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and 2.5 million were infected just last year. Said Dr Chan: "(W)e are still running behind this devastating, this unforgiving epidemic."

Tuberculosis control progress remains steady but multi-drug resistant TB has reached historic levels. Said Dr Chan: "To allow this form of TB to become widespread would be a setback, a setback of epic proportions."

Polio eradication efforts are also complicated. In Asia, polio type 1, the most dangerous strain, is on the verge of elimination. But in Africa, a "dramatic upsurge" in this strain has been seen in the northern states of Nigeria, while other countries in Africa are struggling to eliminate viruses reintroduced two years ago. Said Dr Chan: "(W)e must finish the job (of eradication): We are too close to allow success to slip through our fingers."

On the positive side, long struggles against many diseases are yielding results.

Malaria control is finally showing "solid progress," according to Dr Chan. Rapid improvements in morbidity and mortality have been documented in several African countries.

Immunization programmes have been able to drive childhood mortality below 10 million per year for the first time in recent decades.

Home-based treatment of pneumonia -- the number one killer of young children -- has been shown to be as effective, and possibly safer than hospital care, according to research coordinated by WHO published this year.

Big strides in global health can be made through control of the neglected tropical diseases. Safe and effective drugs have been identified to fight many of these diseases. These drugs are being donated through public-private partnerships or being sold at discount. Dr Chan noted that, with comparatively modest, time-limited funding, many of these diseases could be controlled, and some even eliminated, by 2015.

"Your guidance matters greatly, for health but also for our collective security," Dr Chan told the delegates. "Good health is a foundation for prosperity and contributes to stability, and these are assets in every country. A world that is out of balance in matters of health is neither stable nor secure."

All WHO media releases, fact sheets and features as well as other information on this subject are available on the WHO web site: .

Source: World Health Organization