Vina HuLamm, MS, is APHA's global health manager. Photo by APHA

Vina HuLamm, MS, is APHA’s global health manager. Photo by APHA

The 68th World Health Assembly — hosted in Geneva, Switzerland, from May 18-26 — is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization and helps determine critical global health policies. APHA Global Health Manager Vina HuLamm, who attended the conference as part of the Global Health Council delegation, shared her takeaways with Public Health Newswire.

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What were APHA and our members doing at the World Health Assembly?

APHA and members attended the WHA this year to discuss the key issues in global health as well as engage with a wide range of representatives from civil society, philanthropy, private sector, media and governments. The Assembly provided many opportunities to network and actively participate in the many technical briefings and side events that took place.

This year’s Assembly was especially critical given the discussions leading up to the transition from the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, to the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The MDGs, a set of eight international development goals addressing education, health and other social issues, are set to expire by the end of 2015. The SDGs will be more comprehensive in addressing the economic and social conditions underlying poverty.

The open intergovernmental process for shaping the final SDGs to replace the MDGs has been open and inclusive to all stakeholders. The SDGs will be finalized at the upcoming UN General Assembly in September 2015 and are intended to continue building upon the achievements made from the MDGs.

What global health concerns were discussed and what were people saying about them?

Some of the key issues and topics that took center stage this year included:

  1. Immediate concerns and threats from the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake and Ebola: Humanitarian aid response in Nepal as living conditions deteriorate and the threat of cholera and other infectious diseases. In particular, Ebola highlighted the importance of strong health systems and the need for emergency preparedness. The perceived slow response to the Ebola crisis and delayed declaration by WHO was highly debated and prompted a further evaluation of the organization as a whole to ensure this was not repeated.The crisis highlighted the internal challenges WHO faces as an organization in terms of its decision-making processes and financial resources that led to its delayed reaction. This brought questions of WHO’s capacity to build its response to future emergencies. Dr. Margaret Chan announced her plans, effective by the end of 2015, toward the creation of a $100 million contingency fund to respond quickly to future health emergencies. Additionally, plans are underway to create a semi-independent group within WHO that will have its own director and funding. Greater autonomy of this body would allow it to evaluate whether epidemics pose a global threat. The findings would be made public and transparent; and the director general must act in accordance to their advice.
  1. Complex health issues that come from geopolitical challenges: This includes political conflicts, mass migration and displacement.
  2. Non-communicable diseases: There is a renewed focus on prevention, especially in early childhood and addressing health across the lifespan. Advocates, including the NCD Alliance, led these discussions for the inclusion of language in the SDGs.
  3. The status of WHO’s ongoing process towards organizational reform and questions around its future leadership: The emergence of new actors with their own influence, resources and power such as Gates Foundation; governments of emerging nations such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; the World Bank; and “global financing” mechanisms led to discussions of WHO’s shifting role in a global health arena.
  4. Participation: This year marked the first time the Assembly brought wider participation via webcast. Additionally, youth voices and engagement at the Assembly was visibly strong through student delegations from universities as well as international NGOs.
World Health Organization  Director-General Margaret Chan leads a moment of silence to honor health workers who lost their lives during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Photo by Vina HuLamm

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan leads a moment of silence to honor health workers who lost their lives during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Photo by Vina HuLamm

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the invited speaker for this year’s Assembly. Her speech highlighted the need for a “global disaster response plan” for health issues that affect both industrialized and developing countries: Ebola, neglected tropical diseases that come out of poverty and the growing resistance to antibiotics.

Merkel also reconfirmed WHO’s legitimacy as the universal political entity on global health issues, though more work is needed to improve its efficiency as an organization. However, the organization must also work more closely in coordination with other UN agencies. A high-level panel has been appointed to begin looking at how these agencies interact with each other, the contributions of each and how plans can be further improved in future disaster responses.

Across all health issues, stronger health systems are necessary for building the capacity and resiliency of countries to face these challenges and threats. Therefore, Merkel announced Germany’s plans to dedicate 200 million euros for this cause, of which 70 million will be reserved for West Africa.