This month of May, we anticipate the gathering of key leaders in medicine, health, and international governance around the world at the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA), the highest decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Taking place in Geneva, Switzerland from May 20 to May 28, 2019, the WHA aims to situate health policy in a global perspective. The agency itself defines health policy as the “decisions, plans, and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific health care goals within a society”. It demonstrates the importance of setting such a policy into action and stated that it can plan for the future and establish priorities for different groups and people.
As the 72nd WHA begins its proceedings, we might be asking ourselves the following questions:
- What do more than seven decades of international health policy look like?
- How have past policies affected our world? What future policies will govern our respective health sectors?
- What can we do for the global health sector as citizens and patients?
Some of the answers are listed below. Get to know the history of this milestone policy event, its unique agenda for 2019, and what civil actions you can undertake in its momentum. Feel free to share this information within your personal network or to use it to make promotional materials with an aligned health advocacy.
The Mandate and Membership of the World Health Assembly
Upon the arrival of the delegations to the WHA, they are enjoined to accomplish the following tasks:
- Determine policies of the organization. The WHA is the proper avenue for stakeholders to review the WHO’s past work, agree on new goals, and assign new tasks.
- Appoint a new Director General. The Assembly also oversees the appointment of a new Director General for the WHO. The incumbent Director General is former Ethiopian Minister of Health, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
- Supervise financial policies. The convention takes place across two committee meetings: Committee A, which supervises debate on technical and health matters, and Committee B, which resolves financial and management issues. Both Committee A and Committee B must submit their respective resolutions at the plenary meeting of all delegates.
- Review and approve proposed program budget. The delegates of the WHA will agree on the proposed program budget for the calendar years of 2020 to 2021.
When the body first convened in 1948, it counted only 55 member states in its constituency. This year, a total of 194 member-states will send their delegations to the WHA.
In addition to these main stakeholders, seven non-state agencies are also granted observer status in the WHA. They include religious and international public health institutions such as the Vatican, the Palestinian Authority, the Sovereign Order of Malta, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and the Department of Health of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
A Brief History of the WHA’s Landmark Health Policy Resolutions
With more than seventy years of discussion and debate, the WHA has ultimately been responsible for crafting several important international health policy frameworks. Among them are:
- The International Health Regulations (IHR). The IHR, which were instituted in 2007, is an international legal instrument that governs how nations can prevent and respond to acute public health risks that threaten citizens across borders. Items in the framework detail how countries must report public health events, as well as the protocols to follow in order to achieve global health security.
- The International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes. Usually abbreviated as the “WHO Code,” this framework was adopted in 1981 in order to advocate healthy breastfeeding, proper use of breast milk substitutes when necessary, and adequate nutrition for newborns.
- The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). The WHO FCTC, published in 2003, has the distinction of being the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. It was developed to counter a perceived tobacco epidemic brought about by the quick globalization of tobacco. The framework includes measures for protection against tobacco smoke, proper labeling of tobacco products, and calls for reduction measures in light of tobacco dependence.
- The Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel. This instrument was adopted by the WHA in 2010 in light of an upward trend in health worker migration. It upholds the ethical international recruitment of health workers as a way to strengthen already fragile health systems.
The 72nd WHA: Upcoming Health Issues to Watch Out For
Prior to the proceedings, the WHO already released an agenda for the 72nd WHA on its website. Some of the health issues that will generate extensive discussion during the assembly are:
- Public health emergencies. The 72nd WHA’s schedule shows that a lot of time will be dedicated to the topic of public health emergencies—specifically, preparedness and response to imminent public health emergencies, the WHO’s work in such emergencies, and a presentation of the Report of the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
- Cases of wild poliovirus affecting the public may have decreased by 99% since the late 1980s, but an alarming 33 incidences of polio were reported in 2018. The WHA remains steadfast in its goal of eradicating polio for so long as a single child is infected with the virus.
- The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The WHA will review the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched at UN Sustainable Development summit last 2015. The committees will survey the points of action that pertain to health.
- Universal health coverage. Universal health coverage happens to be current Director General Tedros’s flagship advocacy at the WHO. In the 72nd WHA, delegates will discuss the role of primary health care in universal health coverage, and what will enable community health care workers to meet the opportunities and challenges afforded to them. This issue will also be tackled in a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, an event that the member-states of the WHA are already preparing for.
- The relationship of health, environment, and climate change. As several member-states of the WHA worry about the looming aftermath of climate change, the assembly will discuss how to improve human life and wellbeing through the cultivation of healthy, sustainable environments.
- Greater access to medicine and vaccines. As of this time, information wars to discredit modern medicine have added to the difficulties of distributing medicine and vaccines to those who need them most. Heightened accessibility is on the 72nd WHA’s priority list.
- Prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Non-communicable diseases, or diseases that are not directly transmissible from one person to another, include heart disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and many others. The WHA will allot time and energy to discuss ongoing measures against these.
- Human resources for health. The member-states of the WHA will caucus on an indispensable part of the health sector: its workforce. They will revisit WHO’s Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, and look to improve global strategy on human resources for health by the time a new workforce emerges in 2030.
- The health of refugees and migrants. According to the WHO’s numbers, as many as 68.5 million people are currently displaced from their home countries. More than 25 million of those are crossing over the borders in order to attain protection. The WHO recognizes that refugees and migrants are particularly vulnerable to illness while in transit or while in stark living conditions. This year’s WHA is committed to drafting a global action plan for them.
- Greater patient safety. The WHA will also champion clean and potable water, sanitation, and hygiene in healthcare facilities to improve the overall quality of healthcare received by patients. In a similar tangent, the committees will also discuss emergency trauma care, or timely care for patients that are acutely ill and injured.
How Can We Get Involved in International Health Policy?
Every year, the top minds in the international health sector converge in Geneva for the World Health Assembly. But this is not to say that they are the only ones who have a hold on our global health policy. In fact, the WHO itself acknowledges how important civil initiatives are; a high policymaking body like the WHA must have a grassroots complement in the “experiential knowledge” of patients and citizens.
In other words, ordinary citizens like us can do our part. Perhaps the first step can be to review past agendas from previous WHAs. Some may be surprised at the richness and variety of health issues on the roster, such as the emergence of medical marijuana, vaccine safety, and gaming disorder. We can be on the watch for new developments on these issues.
Second, we can get conversations started on health issues close to our hearts. We can seize the momentum set at the 72nd WHA and discuss problems like climate change or vaccination with our peers. We can raise awareness on such issues by melding our personal experiences with the scientific and socio-scientific insights from the WHA panels.
Third, we can take the initiative from global to local. We can supplement the global efforts done for the health sector by propping up health initiatives in our own local communities. We can use this time to donate to an organization, volunteer service hours, or lobby for a cause in the company of our local leaders.
As WHO focuses on its “Health for All Challenge,” it’s time to walk the talk. Let’s supplement their efforts in global health policy with initiatives of our own!