World health leaders convened in Geneva for the World Health Assembly in May to tackle leading challenges and discuss priorities. APHA member Hoai-An Truong, PharmD, MPH, professor and director of public health at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, was among APHA members attending the meetings. He shared the following report.

Hoai-An Truong

Hoai-An Truong, PharmD, MPH

American Public Health Association members recently joined the Global Health Council as part of its delegation to the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, to advocate for global health issues. Delegates and representatives actively engaged in the general session and side event discussions on goals, priorities and strategies to improve global health.

Universal health coverage was the theme of this year’s assembly, which is a part of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 adopted at the 2016 World Health Assembly. Nothing is more precious than health, and championing for universal health coverage means investing in health and building systems for the future. By putting policies into practice that are evidence-based, delegates said, we can reach that goal and provide health coverage for 1 billion more people. This topic provides timely perspectives and lessons as we continue discussing universal health care in the United States, as supported by APHA.

Global health leader Richard Charles Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, presented a keynote address. He was recognized for his tireless, wide-ranging and innovative contributions to global health. Horton reminded attendees that it is important to embrace universal health coverage as it’s about delivering quality health services to address the determinants of health, especially given risk factors such as obesity, pollution and more.

With regard to health goals, he said, “No country represented here [at the World Health Assembly] is on track to meet its health target.” He reminded delegates that the strength of the health system is the strength of society. Of note, Horton is a patient himself and a courageous fighter of cancer. Thus, he shared his firsthand experiences with advancing the health system. We cannot be in the status quo, he said. Business as usual is not an option to improve health.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered the Health Leaders and Celebration Moment talk and recognized the world coming together for 71 years for a common purpose. He reminded delegates are here to “talk [solutions] but must also listen to the voices of those who are not here or have no voice. It is [for] them we are here to serve.” He also acknowledged several health initiatives, including efforts to improve public health in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean region. Ghebreyesus reiterated the importance of investing in prevention instead of public health emergencies, and more specifically on spreading vaccination and controlling outbreak risks. At the Assembly, four new goodwill ambassadors were announced for health promotion, mental health and health workforce.

In addition to the keynote and celebration moment sessions, many concurrent and side events focused on the approaches and strategies for achieving universal health coverage. These included enhancing community health workers’ support to improve primary health care, public health emergency preparedness and response, and polio eradication. Achieving universal health coverage within nations is a target under Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Reflecting on the World Health Assembly priorities — which included a new strategy, new operating model, new processes, new culture and new approach to partnerships — I came away with one message: How can I, as a public health advocate, and we, as a nation and collective voice, embrace all or at least some of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 to improve health care? Health is about people and partnerships, and health care should not be done in a silo.

I was particularly inspired by Natasha Mwansa, who is a youth advocate and a first year communications and political science student at the University of Zambia. She delivered an impassioned speech to the assembly on “pushing boundaries to change the status of adolescent health.” Mwansa declared “ignorance is the deadliest disease that we can ever fight” and poverty as a major obstacle to achieving universal health coverage. For example, the economies within sub-Saharan Africa lose approximately $30 billion every year due to the lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Poverty is more costly than we realize. We spend more resources tackling the issues resulting from poverty rather than addressing its root causes.

As leaders, we need to work more collaboratively toward solutions. Let’s empower our colleagues and communities, invest in health and, as advocated by Mwansa, “raise our flags in unity” with the global community. Together, we can work to provide health care for all.