World Health Assembly: Focus on food safety, oral health, tuberculosis, innovations

World Health Assembly opens
The theme of World Health Assembly, Health for Peace, Peace for Health is timely and appropriate for a world ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict.

The 75th World Health Assembly opened in Geneva in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic that tested the resilience of health systems worldwide. The focus of the assembly is on ‘Health for Peace, Peace for Health’ for recovery and renewal. At least 5 million people have died and an even larger number are still suffering from the long-term consequences of the pandemic. When the world is struggling to cope with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, an avoidable war was unleashed by Russia on its neighbour Ukraine. The war has created further financial stress worldwide, and the resultant food crisis has brought misery to millions of the poorest people.

The theme ‘Health for Peace, Peace for Health’ is timely and appropriate for the world ravaged by the pandemic and the war. Global health needs new approaches and priorities and must focus on impactful interventions. The World Health Assembly, the premier forum for global health discourses, has a crowded agenda. Global strategies for food safety, oral health, tuberculosis research, and health innovations are some of the issues that will be discussed at the week-long assembly. The assembly has about 73 items on its agenda.

At the opening of the assembly, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced awards for individuals who went beyond the call of duty to protect life and promote health. “The turmoil of these pandemic years has been profound, unlike anything we have ever experienced. It has been a time of suffering and great loss,” he said.

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India’s accredited social health activists, or ASHAs, were among the recipients of the WHOs annual health award for their work connecting people with health services. ASHAs are more than one million trained female volunteers who take health services to rural, marginalised and hard-to-reach communities across India.

ASHAs provide maternal care, immunisation for children, community healthcare, treatment for hypertension and tuberculosis, and services for nutrition, sanitation, and healthy living. They play a critical role in India’s primary healthcare system, including providing essential health services to millions of people. Ms Seema Pujani, first secretary from the permanent mission of India, received the award for ASHAs. Health ministers and their delegations will meet in Geneva next week after a two-year hiatus to decide on important global health issues ranging from Ukraine’s health needs to preparing the globe for the next pandemic.

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World Health Assembly’s forward-looking agenda

Some of the topics under discussion include strengthening WHO preparedness for and response to health emergencies, a roadmap 2023–2030 for the global action plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, intersectoral global action plan on epilepsy and other neurological disorders, prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, poliomyelitis and the Global Health for Peace Initiative. The forum will also discuss the working group report on sustainable financing of WHO.

Items on the agenda will be discussed in Committee A and Committee B. Committee A deals with programme and budget matters, while Committee B deals with administrative, financial and legal issues.

The assembly opened on May 22 with speeches from the Health Assembly president, heads of state, special guests, and the WHO Director-General. Dr Patrick Amoth of Kenya is the chair the Global Health Assembly. Dr Amoth is the acting Director General for Health in the ministry of health, Kenya. Assembly delegates, partner agencies, representatives of civil society, and experts will also discuss priorities for public health in a series of strategic roundtables. Discussions can be followed online.

The health assembly is WHO’s highest decision-making body, setting out the Organisation’s policy and approving its budget. WHA is attended by delegations from all 194 WHO member states. The assembly’s plan is prepared by the programme, budget and administration committee of the executive board.

An in-depth discussion on the proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) is on the agenda. The United States has already put forward proposals for amendments to the IHR. However, it is unclear whether member states will reach an agreement and when amendments will be considered for adoption. Therefore, the revisions may not be implemented until the 77th World Health Assembly in 2024.

Preparations for a Pandemic treaty are also on the agenda of the WHA An Intergovernmental negotiating body was established in December 2021 to draft and negotiate a global agreement on pandemic preparation. No decision on a prospective international pandemic instrument is expected at the 75th WHA. However, the group will discuss the working draft that will be the basis of the discussions.

WHO funding is still a significant issue. The WHO’s working committee on sustainable financing has unanimously recommended that member governments boost their annual assessed payments. The proposed increase will be phased over, beginning in May 2024. All the 194 member states of the WHA may support this recommendation. The Health Assembly is open to member states, associate members, observers, invited representatives of the UN and other participating inter-governmental organisations and non-state actors.

(The author is in Geneva to attend the 75th World Health Assembly.)

Prof. Joe Thomas

Dr Joe Thomas is Global Public Health Chair at Sustainable Policy Solutions Foundation, a policy think tank based in New Delhi. He is also Professor of Public Health at Institute of Health and Management, Victoria, Australia. Opinions expressed in this article are personal.