Delegates at World Health Assembly in Geneva

Delegates convene in Geneva for the 2012 World Health Assembly. Photo courtesy WHO/Pierre Albouy

Public health officials from more than 200 nations are meeting this week in Geneva for the 65th World Health Assembly.

Leaders plan to tackle a range of health issues of global concern, including universal health coverage, noncommunicable diseases, mental disorders, nutrition and adolescent pregnancy. The Millennium Development Goals — a blueprint for action on poverty, hunger and disease agreed to by the world’s nations and development institutions — are also on the docket.

In her address yesterday to the assembly, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, chronicled the challenges of recent decades: oil crisis, debt crisis, economic recession and structural adjustment programs, which forced many developing debt-burdened nations to abandon investments in health and social services. Progress on health slowed, she said.

The first decade of the 21st century took on a new outlook. “Many describe it as the ‘golden age for health development,’” she said. “And rightly so.”

She said innovations led to new vaccines, medicines and new ways for stimulating investments in research and development on health and diseases of the poor.

And she remains optimistic about the future.

“I believe the best days for health are ahead of us, not behind us,” said Chan, pointing to progress on polio, guinea worm, malaria and tobacco among other health challenges.

But she warned delegates of two major challenges. The global financial crisis has squeezed donors and raised demands from taxpayers. And she said the rise of chronic noncommunicable disease, such as diabetes and other obesity-related health concerns, will drive health costs for the foreseeable future, calling it the “longest dark shadow.”

The assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization and is attended by delegations from all member states.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius led the U.S. delegation to the assembly, which includes APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin.