Margaret Chan

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan made opening remarks Monday at the 66th annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, which runs from May 20-28. Photo by WHO/Pierre Albouy

The future of global health is under investigation this week at the 66th World Health Assembly in Geneva, including issues such as controlling noncommunicable diseases and advancing toward universal health coverage.

And the key to that is public health, according to the World Health Organization.

“In these troubled times, public health looks more and more like a refuge, a safe harbor of hope that allows, and inspires, all countries to work together for the good of humanity,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan during remarks at Monday’s opening. “Fear of new diseases can unite the world, but so can determination to relieve preventable human misery. This is what makes public health stand out from other areas of global engagement: the motives, the values and the focus.”

Roughly 3,000 participants from WHO’s 194 member countries — all also members of the United Nations — joined the world’s preeminent health policy conference to tackle emerging global health issues, and address eight Millennium Development Goals that the UN aims to reach by 2015. One major development is especially encouraging: The health gap between poor and rich countries has narrowed substantially over the last two decades, with child mortality rates declining in countries with some of the highest rates.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius discussed the Affordable Care Act and its new rules that “prevent the worst insurance company abuses that for decades contributed to many people being denied care.”

“In keeping with the spirit of WHO’s constitution, which recognizes that all people everywhere have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, we’ve also committed to our own domestic action plan for reducing racial and ethnic health disparities,” Sebelius said during the conference plenary session.

Chan also addressed the dangers of the SARS-related coronavirus and the H7N9 flu virus, cooperation with non-tobacco industries to decrease noncommunicable diseases, and another major public health victory: more than 9 million people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries using antiretroviral therapy, up from 200,000 just 11 years ago.

“This is the fastest scale-up of a life-saving intervention in history,” Chan said.

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin joins Sebelius as a member of the U.S delegation.