World Health Assembly

Medicines breakthrough for developing countries

The 61st World Health Assembly, held in May in Geneva, set WHO on a course to tackle longstanding, new and looming threats to global public health. Among its achievements, the Health Assembly produced a public health breakthrough by providing a platform for removing barriers and using innovative methods to encourage research, development and access to medicines for the common diseases of the developing world.

“This is a major breakthrough for public health that will benefit many millions of people for many years to come,” said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “This is a contribution to fairness in health and this is pro-active public health at its very best.”

The “public health, innovation and intellectual property” strategy endorsed by the Health Assembly is designed to promote new approaches to pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), and to enhance access to medicines. It is also designed to provide a medium-term framework for enhancing and making sustainable essential R&D relevant to diseases impacting developing countries.

Delegates to the Health Assembly directly confronted major public health challenges which are now results of complex interactions of factors beyond health.

The existing list of health problems still press nations and strain resources. A staggering 33.2 million people are living with HIV, and 2.5 million were infected just last year. Progress in tuberculosis control remains steady but multi-drug resistant TB has reached historic levels. 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.

On the positive side, long struggles against many diseases are yielding results. Malaria control is finally showing solid progress with rapid improvements in morbidity and mortality documented in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia. Immunisation programmes have been able to drive childhood mortality below 10 million per year for the first time. Home-based treatment of pneumonia – the number one killer of young children – has been shown to be as effective as, and possibly safer than, hospital care, according to research coordinated by WHO and published this year. And new resources, such as those provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are bringing guinea-worm eradication within reach.

Noncommunicable diseases

The Health Assembly endorsed a six-year action plan to tackle what are now the leading threats to human health: noncommunicable diseases. These diseases – particularly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases – caused 60% of all deaths globally in 2005 (estimated at 35 million deaths). Low and middle-income countries are the worst affected by these diseases which are largely preventable by modifying four common risk factors: tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol.


Delegates also requested WHO – through a resolution – to intensify its work to curb harmful use of alcohol, which is the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability in the world. They called upon WHO to develop a global strategy for this purpose.

Climate change

Delegates to the Health Assembly adopted a resolution that urges Member States to take decisive action to address health impacts from climate change, warning of its potential risks on human health. The resolution calls on the health sector

● to scale up adaptation projects that would limit the impacts of climate change on health;

● to raise global awareness of the impacts of health from climate change at national and international levels; and

● to boost political attention and action.

Member States also called on WHO to develop and strengthen the evidence base on links between climate change and health, and to help developing countries address health impacts from climate change.

On the Web
Watch video of Her Royal Highness Muna Al Hussein, Princess of Jordan, WHO EMRO patron for nursing and midwifery, address to the World Health Assembly.

Other actions

The Health Assembly's actions were not limited to new challenges. Delegates also reaffirmed their commitments to eradicating polio and preparing for an influenza pandemic. Other actions included:

● Female genital mutilation (FGM): Member States committed themselves to accelerating action towards the elimination of this practice through laws and educational and community efforts. Moreover, women and girls who have undergone FGM will be better supported, particularly as regards their care during childbirth, as well as in the social and psychological areas.

● Global immunisation strategy: Vaccines already prevent 2 to 3 million deaths a year but the Health Assembly noted that they are still underutilised. Delegates directed WHO to help countries reach higher immunisation coverage and to encourage development of new vaccines.

● Migrant health: Member States requested WHO to assess the health aspects in migrant environments and to explore options to improve the health of migrants.

In closing the Health Assembly Dr Chan commended participants: “Health leaders from around the world have joined together in a united front on many big and difficult issues.

“You consistently demonstrated a desire to reach consensus, and showed great flexibility in achieving compromise despite some significant differences.”

 Date of upload: 23rd July 2008

                                               Copyright © 2008 All Rights Reserved.