GENEVA – Health is back on the world’s proverbial radar. The headlines of the past eight months or so have been dominated by a deepening worldwide recession, pushing reports on the myriad major health challenges the world faces off the pages of the shrinking number of newspapers.
About a month before the world’s health ministers, their entourages, delegations from the Global Health Council and other NGOs, and Taiwanese protesters descended on Geneva this week for the 62nd World Health Assembly, health once again found its way to the front pages thanks to a little virus called H1N1 influenza (a.k.a. “swine flu”). There is nothing like a new, potentially deadly flu strain to concern the public, cause hours of discussion on cable news and ignite the attention of the world’s public health officials – the flu is spread very easily and can infect people of all ages, nations and income levels.
Given the severity of previous flu outbreaks, the threat posed by H1N1 should not be taken lightly, and as such it has been the dominant topic of discussion here at the WHA. It even caused the health ministers to shorten the meeting down to one busy week so that they can return to their countries. This year’s president of the WHA, Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, praised the global response to H1N1 in Monday’s opening plenary, calling the response an “excellent example” of how public health officials worldwide can work together to respond to an emergency situation.
But shortly after, De Silva reminded the thousands on hand in Assembly Hall that such efforts must continue for “non-emergency situations.” Public health officials and experts this week have an obligation to tell the public and the media (whose attention they now have) about not only the potential threats H1N1 and other health issues could pose in combination, but the onus of strengthening health systems and synergizing programs so that adequate response and care can be given everyone – from the world’s poorest people in developing countries to the world’s richest in developed countries.
Before shouts from Taiwanese protesters at the end of her speech (Taiwan was given “observer” status at WHA) World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan struck such a tone in her opening remarks. Chan said that H1N1 has shown “just how much equity matters in times of crisis,” and added that potentially greater risks of H1N1 to groups such as pregnant women should be addressed and closely monitored. The assembly was briefly disrupted again later in the day when people protesting the Sri Lankan Health Minister’s election to the presidency. The situation was resolved peacefully, and the Sri Lankan Health Minister rightly raised the health-related issues of displaced people both in Sri Lanka and around the world.
Day two of the WHA delved more deeply into the world’s major health issues, and delegates addressed the issue that WHO has identified as the heart of it all – Primary Health Care. But before the delegates took their seats in a smaller meeting room to debate the fine points of the primary health care resolution, they were treated to a very well-articulated speech by U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and a rousing speech by Sarah Brown, maternal health advocate and wife of U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Ban and Brown’s speeches both touched on the issue of the appalling fact that maternal mortality has not seen a decline despite the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of a 75% reduction from 1990 to 2015. Ban set the stage by explaining why keeping mothers alive is at the heart of achieving all the MDGs. Brown followed with a passionate speech, saying that she was not speaking as a skilled public health provider but rather on behalf of the more than 500,000 women who die each year because of complications related to their pregnancy. She also mentioned the lifelong work on maternal health of the late Dr. Allan Rosenfield, former Global Health Council board member and Dean Emeritus of the Mailman School of Public Health – and called on the delegates to act on what Dr. Rosenfield brought to our attention.
This is the second time in less than one month that I’ve heard Brown speak, and her passion and reasoned arguments for a strong global response to reducing maternal mortality has awakened many on both occasions. An energized group of delegates now enter day three, and as the GHC member delegates and the thousands at WHA continue their side meetings and sessions, I am hopeful that real meaningful action (which hopefully will be accompanied by real, meaningful money) will be taken.