Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Highlights of the 52nd World Health Assembly

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Highlights of the 52nd World Health Assembly

Article excerpt

The 52nd World Health Assembly took place in Geneva from 17 to 25 May. The Health Assembly, which is the highest governing body of WHO, meets annually and is attended by delegations from the Organization's 191 Member States. The role of the World Health Assembly is to review the progress and performance of WHO and give direction to its future work. WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland called the Health Assembly "an opportunity to build support and consensus on key health issues". This year was Dr Brundtland's first as Director-General; she was elected at the 51st Health Assembly last year.

In her statement to delegates, Dr Brundtland outlined four main challenges for the future, namely:

* reducing the burden of excess mortality and preventable disability suffered by the poor;

* countering potential threats to health resulting from economic crises, unhealthy environments and risky behaviour;

* developing more effective health systems since in many parts of the world these are ill-equipped to cope with present demands, let alone the demands of the future;

* expanding the knowledge base that has made the 20th-century revolution in health possible.

"Making a difference is our watchword," Dr Brunddand said. "In everything we do we have to ask: how can we best make the biggest impact and difference in people's health?" She described WHO as "first and foremost a technical agency devoted to the support of sustainable health systems, which offers its advice strategically to support the real needs of countries". However, she added that the Organization also has the role of a catalyst -- "to unleash the resources of national governments, development banks and bilateral partners".

Dr Brundtland's words were backed up by The World Health Report 1999, titled "Making a difference"(a), which was presented to the Health Assembly. The report stressed that the main priority must be to make health systems more cost-effective, to increase equity, and to fight the diseases that make up the main burden of disease. The two major challenges confronting health systems in all countries, according to the report, are how to ensure efficiency and how to achieve and maintain universal coverage of health care.

New features of this year's World Health Assembly were a lecture on health in development and a series of roundtables for health ministers. The lecture was given by Professor Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics for his work in welfare economics. "Even when an economy is poor," Dr Sen said, "major health improvements can be achieved through using the available resources in a socially positive way."(b)

Over 100 ministers of health took part in the roundtable discussions that covered four topics: priority setting in the health sector, investment in hospitals, "finding the money", and HIV/AIDS. Each roundtable was aimed at enabling ministers to share lessons learned and thereby help others to plan more effectively. Well-known journalists served as moderators of the wide-ranging debates which were introduced by technical experts.

The 52nd World Health Assembly discussed a variety of technical issues -- such as those related to smallpox vaccine, poliomyelitis, iodine deficiency and malaria -- as well as essential drugs, health systems, ageing, and tobacco control.

In 1996, the World Health Assembly agreed to the destruction, by 30 June 1999, of the two known stocks of smallpox virus -- at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA and at the State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology in the Russian Federation -- subject to confirmation by this year's World Health Assembly. The last case of smallpox recorded was in 1978 in Somalia, and WHO declared the disease officially eradicated in 1980. This year's Health Assembly affirmed that "the final elimination of all variola virus remains the goal of the World Health Organization and all Member States". …

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