Posted by: davidjolson | 05/17/2011

WHO chief touts recent successes in global health

GENEVA — World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan opened the World Health Assembly here on Monday with a  comprehensive review of past successes and challenges in global health, but nary a nod to what is required to meet the challenges of the future.

We, at the Global Health Council, were pleased to hear two innovations of member organizations mentioned prominently in the opening of her speech:

    • A meningitis vaccine launched in Burkina Faso last December, and since expanded to Mali and Niger, is already showing impressive results. “In a project coordinated by WHO and PATH, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the vaccine was developed, in record time, and at about one-tenth of the cost usually needed to bring a product through development to the market,” said Dr. Chan. Bill Gates also touted the vaccine in his speech at the World Health Assembly today.
    • Last year, a new diagnostic test called Xpert MTB/RIF was developed by Geneva-based FIND and others that takes sensitive and accurate testing for TB and its multi-drug resistant form MDR-TB out of central laboratories and brings it much closer to the patient. The new test cuts the time to result for both TB and MDR-TB from weeks to less than two hours, with minimal needs regarding infrastructure and training for health workers. In her speech, Dr. Chan said it “is vastly superior in its speed and sensitivity, delivering results in around 100 minutes. WHO endorsement of the test brought an immediate price reduction of 75% for developing countries. Roll-out has begun in more than 30 countries, assisted by WHO and other partners.”

Dr. Chan said she was also heartened by three recent “landmark agreements” by member states on issues “that strengthen our collective defenses and break new ground in tackling long-standing problems”:

  • First was agreement on a set of strategies for improving preparedness for influenza pandemics, sharing viruses and extending the benefits of new drugs and vaccines to the developing world.
  • Second, Dr. Chan referred to the ministerial conference on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Moscow in April that produced the Moscow Declaration, which Dr. Chan said have laid an excellent foundation for the U.N. Summit on NCDs that take place in New York in September.
  • Third, the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health reached an agreement, and its final report was completed less than four months after the Commission was first convened.

We agree that these things show tremendous progress but we would have liked to have heard more about the future.

Global health is in a critical transition period. The demands of infectious disease like AIDS, TB and malaria are still great — despite some notable success — while the toll of NCDs in developing countries, and the need for action, is becoming more and more clear in this year when NCDs are finally getting the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, the neglected areas of maternal, newborn and reproductive health, and tropical diseases, are finally getting some much-needed attention, but not enough (the G8 leaders will meet in France next week, seemingly determined to forget the pledges on maternal and child health that they made to great fanfare in Canada last year).

And, if that were not enough, Dr. Chan is nearing the end of her first five-year term, which induces a whole other level of global health head-scratching.

So we would have liked to have heard more about what is needed at WHO to sustain the successes of the past and, more importantly, to generate new ones. But we still have hopes for this to come out later this week here in Geneva.

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