Health ministers at the 2009 World Health Assembly in Geneva last week passed a strong resolution renewing the emphasis the world has promised to place on primary health care. They also passed an important resolution recognizing the social determinants of health (although it was “too weak” according to the Thai health minister), reached important agreements on the response to H1N1 and other health emergencies and attempted to recommit the world toward achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
This was a very important time for the world’s health ministers and civil society representatives such as the Global Health Council’s delegation to get together and share ideas on how to address critical health issues that do not respect borders. However, now that the meetings are over and the speeches are made – the next few months will see if the rhetoric turns into action. Although the H1N1 influenza outbreak brought more attention to the fact that health issues cannot be neglected, the worldwide economic situation looms over governments and the private sector as they plan budgets for next year and beyond. Health is often neglected when the economy is hurting, as is investments for development. Both of these could spell disaster for the world’s poorest, who also are often the most adversely affected by tough economic times. Health ministers and other prominent officials reiterated this point again and again during the WHA – let’s hope the message is well received when as they return home.
Another piece of WHA rhetoric that is critical to turn into action in order for measureable progress to be made on health in developing countries is involvement of civil society. Global Health Council Director of Government Relations Smita Baruah spoke on a WHA panel on Thursday that addressed civil society participation in primary health care. Although civil society is mentioned in the final declaration on primary health care (http://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/A62/A62_8-en.pdf), the role of civil society in PHC is not well defined or emphasized. Ms. Baruah outlined why it is so important for governments to put a seat at the table for civil society in clear writing when developing and implementing their primary health care plans, and many in the audience of more than 100 added their two cents about how to better integrate civil society into PHC. Now that the declaration has passed, it will be up to not only governments but community groups worldwide to sustain a passionate and persistent movement to demand quality primary health care in their city, town or village.