68th World Health Assembly Opens in Geneva

May 18, 2015

Angela Merkel, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Photo courtesy of WHO.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, addressed delegates on the first morning of the 68th World Health Assembly, convened at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. "The WHO is the only international organization that has universal political legitimacy on global health issues,” she says.

Merkel called for a new plan to deal with “catastrophes” like the recent Ebola outbreak. The outbreak highlighted the critical need for urgent, collaborative action in emergencies, and the importance of having efficient structures in place. Chancellor Merkel paid tribute to all those working to safeguard human health worldwide, urging them to “work together.”

She pledged that under Germany’s presidency, the G7 would focus on fighting antimicrobial resistance and neglected tropical diseases. She emphasized the need for all countries to have strong health systems and highlighted the key role of health in sustainable development.

In the afternoon, WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan outlined her plans to create a single new WHO program for health emergencies, uniting outbreak and emergency resources across the three levels of the Organization. “I have heard what the world expects from WHO,” says Chan. “And we will deliver.”

The new program will be accountable to the director-general, and will have its own business rules and operational platforms. It will have clear performance metrics, built on partnerships with other responders. It will set up a new global health emergency workforce, as well as strengthening its own core and surge capacity of trained emergency response staff. The Organization is calling for a new $100 million contingency fund. The director-general plans to complete these changes by the end of the year.

Chan reiterated Merkel’s points about the importance of building resilient health systems and defeating antimicrobial resistance, citing the “specter of a post-antibiotic era in which common infections will once again kill,” and urging delegates to adopt the draft global action plan on antimicrobial resistance on this year’s Health Assembly agenda.”

She also noted the need to ensure that the International Health Regulations, the world’s legal instruments for outbreak preparedness and response, are effective. She urged delegates to ready themselves for the post-2015 development agenda and to ensure that health receives the attention, and the resources it needs: “The goals are ambitious. Financing plans must likewise be ambitious but credible.”

Chan also encouraged WHO member states to align in preparation for the Climate Conference in Paris at the end of the year, pointing out that health had remained on the side lines of this critical issue for too long.

Earlier in the day, the Health Assembly elected Dr. Shri Jagat Prakash Nadda of India as its new president. Five vice presidents were also appointed from Afghanistan, Barbados, China, San Marino and Senegal, representing their respective regions. Addressing the Health Assembly, Nadda announced a number of contributions to WHO from India, including a donation to the WHO contingency fund.

More than 3,000 delegates from WHO’s 194 member states – including a large proportion of the world’s health ministers - are expected to attend the Health Assembly, which ends on May 26. They will discuss resolutions and decision points on antimicrobial resistance, Ebola, epilepsy, the International Health Regulations, malaria, nutrition, polio, public health, innovation, and intellectual property, substandard/spurious/falsely-labelled/falsified/counterfeit medical products, surgical care and anaesthesia.

Delegates will be asked to approve the Organization’s planned budget and programme of work for 2016-2017. They will also review progress reports on a wide range of issues such as adolescent health, immunization, noncommunicable diseases, women and health, and WHO’s response in severe, large-scale emergencies.

A series of daily technical briefings started today with a discussion about health in the post-2015 sustainable development goals. Subsequent sessions will address the Ebola outbreak, climate and health, preparations for the third UN High-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases in 2018, cancer prevention and control, and the development of global health sector strategies for HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections.

Source: WHO