73rd World Health Assembly Resumes Proceedings Virtually

May 18, 2020. World Health Assembly meeting. (WHO)

The World Health Assembly (WHA) this week resumed its proceedings virtually from November 9 to 14. The resumed session follows the reduced (de minimis) meeting of May 18 to 19.[1] The WHA is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHA highlighted three main concerns to be addressed at the proceedings:

1) COVID-19 can be beaten with science, solutions and solidarity, and calls for an evidence-based approach to the pandemic and for all countries to work together to develop and provide everyone with the necessary vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

2) Members of the WHO must not backslide on its critical health goals. The WHA indicated, "The resumed session will discuss a 10-year-plan for addressing neglected tropical diseases, as well as efforts to address meningitis, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, maternal infant and young child nutrition, digital health, and the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, adopted in 2010."

3) The world must prepare for the next pandemic now. It is calling on "the global health community to ensure that all countries are better equipped to detect and respond to cases of COVID-19 and other dangerous infectious diseases."

Overall, the major concern of the WHO is to develop the capacity, cooperation and solidarity of all countries to collectively overcome the health problems facing humanity.

Summing Up the WHO's Work in 2020

In his opening remarks to the WHA on November 9, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus summed up the state of the pandemic and gave an overview of the WHO's approach in the past year to overcoming COVID-19:

- providing the world with up-to-date scientific guidelines;
- conducting the Solidarity Trial, one of the largest and most diverse clinical trials, to generate robust data on therapeutics;
- the OpenWHO.org learning platform that has provided free online training in 17 different topics, in 41 languages, with more than 4.5 million registered users;
- the Access to COVID-19 Tools that aims to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics fast, and to allocate them fairly.

Dr. Tedros noted the WHO's work to respond to more than 60 emergencies, "including major outbreaks of Chikungunya in Chad, yellow fever in Gabon and Togo, measles in Mexico, conflicts in the Sahel, Middle East and Caucasus, storms in the Philippines and Viet Nam, and much more." He noted, "After an 18-month struggle, under the leadership of the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and with multiple partners, we ended the Ebola outbreak in the country's east -- one of the most complex health emergencies WHO has ever faced, made even more difficult by the world's largest measles outbreak." The WHO also provided aid to those injured in the explosion in Beirut on August 4. It has continued its vaccination program to eradicate polio, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19.

He stated that "there has been progress towards our target to see 1 billion more people benefiting from universal health coverage" and that "There has also been significant progress in our work to support health system-strengthening around the world."

Transformation of WHO

Dr. Tedros also pointed out that the WHO is in the midst of a process of transformation as directed by its membership. Its aim is to "deliver a measurable impact" in member countries, including by making the "WHO a modern, data-driven organization that supports Member States with timely, reliable and actionable data to drive impact."

The second aspect of the transformation is "new processes to make us more effective and efficient."

Thirdly, the WHO is also implementing a "new aligned operating model, which for the first time clearly differentiates the role of headquarters, regional and country offices, and aligns our structures at all three levels."

Fourthly, the WHO is taking a new approach to partnerships, expanding them to include ones with sports federations and the private sector, including social media monopolies.

Fifthly, is what Dr. Tedros referred to as "a new culture that is focused on results" which he linked to the WHO's values charter established two years ago "which outlines five values that make us who we are: service, excellence, integrity, collaboration, and compassion."

The sixth aspect of this transformation is to ensure predictable and sustainable funding for the WHO. He said, "For WHO to do its job, we must address the shocking and expanding imbalance between assessed contributions and voluntary, largely earmarked funds. In the past decade, the world's expectations of WHO have grown dramatically, but our budget has barely changed. And those expectations will only continue to increase in the wake of the pandemic. Our annual budget is equivalent to what the world spends on tobacco products every single day."

The seventh and final aspect of the transformation is "building a motivated, diverse and fit-for-purpose workforce," and Dr. Tedros noted, "We achieved gender parity in senior leadership for the first time in WHO, and we're making progress in other areas."

Dr. Tedros also mentioned a proposal made last year "by the Central African Republic and Benin as the then-Chair of the African Union [...] in which countries agree to a regular and transparent process of peer review, similar to the system of universal periodic review used by the Human Rights Council. We're calling it the Universal Health and Preparedness Review. Its purpose is to build mutual trust and accountability for health, by bringing nations together as neighbours to support a whole-of-government approach to strengthening national capacities for pandemic preparedness, universal health coverage and healthier populations. We are now in the process of developing a more detailed proposal, which we will share with Member States very shortly."

Resolution on Emergency Preparedness

On November 10, the WHA approved a resolution on emergency preparedness. The resolution asks countries to reinvigorate their systems of emergency preparedness, vulnerability assessment, alert, response, and compliance, in line with the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR), which are a binding legal framework.

The new resolution also asks the WHO to come up with proposals by next year's WHA for "possible complementary mechanisms to be used by the Director-General to alert the global community about the severity and/or magnitude of a public health emergency, in order to mobilize necessary support and facilitate international coordination."

The website Geneva Solutions reports that "member states are considering adding an 'amber alert' to the current IHR system by which WHO could signal that a public health emergency is developing -- even before it becomes a full blown 'red light' signaling a 'public health emergency of international concern.'"

Resolutions on Meningitis Control and Epilepsy,
Roadmap on Neglected Tropical Diseases

Committee A, which focuses on program and budget matters, recommended the adoption of the first-ever resolution on meningitis, which would approve a global roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030 -- a disease that kills 300,000 people annually and leaves one in five of those affected with devastating long-term consequences.

Committee A also recommended the adoption of a resolution calling for scaled-up and integrated action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders such as stroke, migraine and dementia. Neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death worldwide.

Committee A further recommended the endorsement of the new roadmap for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The roadmap aims to achieve the following targets by 2030: reduce by 90 per cent the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs, eliminate at least one NTD in 100 countries, eradicate two diseases (dracunculiasis and yaws), and reduce by 75 per cent the disability-adjusted life years related to NTDs.

Committee B, which deals predominantly with administrative, financial and legal matters, reviewed the Director-General's report on "Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan." Committee B also voted to recommend the adoption of a decision requesting that the Director-General, amongst others, report on progress in the implementation of its recommendations to the next World Health Assembly.

Along with the resolution on scaled-up action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders, resolutions on eye care and food safety were also adopted. The WHA also adopted a Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer as a public health problem, a Global Strategy for Tuberculosis Research and Innovation; and a Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property.

The WHA declared 2021-2030 the Decade of Healthy Aging, as well as declaring 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers.


1. For coverage of the first part of the 73rd WHA, see "73rd Session of World Health Assembly Held Virtually," TML Weekly Supplement, May 23, 2020.

(With files from WHO, Geneva Solutions.)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 44 - November 14, 2020

Article Link:
73rd World Health Assembly Resumes Proceedings Virtually


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