21 January 2013

Africa: International Health Cooperation Delivering Progress in Spite of Adversity - UN Official

International cooperation on health is delivering positive results at a time when the world is dealing with multiple challenges such as difficult weather conditions, conflict and economic austerity, a senior United Nations official said today, calling on countries to continue their efforts to improve public health.

"The climate is changing. Antibiotics are failing. The world population keeps getting bigger and older [...] costs are soaring at a time of nearly universal austerity," the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, said in her report to the agency's Executive Board in Geneva. "The challenges facing public health are big and increasingly universal, but they are not insurmountable."

Dr. Chan stressed that new challenges need new instruments and approaches, and noted how innovation has allowed for significant progress, reducing the spread of diseases such as meningitis.

As of December, 100 million Africans had received a new conjugate vaccine to protect them from meningitis through a joint WHO project, leading to a dramatic drop in cases in 10 countries, Dr. Chan noted, and a new diagnostic tool for tuberculosis has been made more affordable through financial support from WHO partners, allowing it to be used in more than 70 countries.

Economic uncertainty has led to new health programmes that are equally ambitious while being more mindful of costs to affected countries and the international donor community, she said.

"At a time when funding is precarious, it is particularly encouraging to see how programmes are using new research to set ever higher goals," she said. In particular, she pointed to scientific breakthroughs for HIV, which are more accessible to larger numbers of people at lower costs.

"The range of interventions has expanded dramatically. Safer, more robust antiretroviral therapy is now available even in the world's poorest countries."

WHO is also working with countries to help them make better use of their legislation and regulations to reduce the source of health threats, through treaties such as the first protocol to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that was adopted in November and aims to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products.

The protocol treaty, Dr. Chan underlined, "is a watershed event in its own right. It is also a model of what can be achieved when multiple sectors of government, including trade, finance, the environment, customs, law enforcement, and the judicial system, collaborate in the name of health."

Collaboration from the private sector and non-governmental organizations is also necessary, as they help to increase accessibility and affordability of vaccines and medicines, and raise awareness of health measures, Dr. Chan said.

Private companies have so far committed more than $18 million to strengthen pandemic preparedness and in December one of the three largest manufacturers of influenza vaccines, GlaxoSmithKline signed an agreement with WHO to give the agency access to 10 per cent of its total production of pandemic vaccines, in real time. This means that, as the vaccines roll out of production, every 10th dose goes to WHO for distribution to countries most in need. The company has further agreed to give WHO up to 10 million treatment courses of antiviral medicine.

"These are truly first-time, breakthrough achievements," Dr. Chan said. "They mark the beginning of a new approach to establishing a structured and predictable process for ensuring fair access to medical products during an emergency, and strengthening preparedness."

While much progress has been made, there remains a lot to be done to eliminate diseases such as malaria and polio, and address other pressing health issues, including non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. Commitment, accountability, transparency and continuous engagement are required from Member States to achieve this, Dr. Chan stated, as she asked Member States to continue supporting the agency this year.

"International health cooperation is doing much good, despite a world climate of austerity and adversity. A WHO that performs with greater efficiency and effectiveness will make that good even better."

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