The World Health Assembly, the governing board of the World Health Organization, agreed last month to form a new committee to help speed up its response to health emergencies like COVID-19. The decision was taken at the 75th World Health Assembly held in Geneva between May 22 to 28, 2022. This was the first in-person congregation of the WHA since COVID-19; the previous two were held virtually.

The move follows the WHA’s consensus decision in December last year to kickstart a global process to draft and negotiate a convention, agreement or other international instrument under the Constitution of the World Health Organization to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies with international repercussions have highlighted the leadership and coordinating role of the WHO in responding to such events. Strengthening preparedness for and response to health emergencies are a key theme of the global body. Many see this step as a rare chance for the U.N. health agency to strengthen its role following over 15 million deaths globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The WHO has faced criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pace of its response to early cases is believed to have caused delayed detection and helped the virus to spread. Disease experts say that governments and the WHO must avoid repeating such early missteps with other outbreaks like monkeypox and are pushing for faster action from global health authorities to contain the outbreak.

The resolution, passed unanimously at the 34-member Executive Board’s annual meeting, will form a new ‘Standing Committee on Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response’ to help address some of the perceived shortcomings. The draft decision proposed by Austria, Canada, European Union and its Member States, Japan, Republic of Moldova, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America and Vanuatu. The Standing Committee shall be composed of 14 members, two from each regions.

Formal WHO meetings are sometimes spaced months apart and, under the new initiative, the new body would meet immediately after the Director-General declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – a decision that calls for extra funding, public health measures and a series of recommendations aimed at controlling disease spread. That member states or governing bodies did not have the opportunity to have immediate consultations after the declaration of PHEIC of the last pandemic was probably one of the weakest points during the last pandemic, as per members who proposed the move.

The new committee would also conduct oversight of the WHO’s health emergencies programme in ordinary times to ensure it is fit to respond. It is believed that this standing committee will play an important role in the new global architecture on health emergency.

Health for Peace, Peace for Health

This year’s session of the Health Assembly focused on the theme of “Health for Peace, Peace for Health”. In a world threatened by conflict, inequities, the climate crisis and pandemics, the session stressed the importance of building a healthy and peaceful planet by harnessing science, data, technology and innovation.

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all of its 194 Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland where delegates from all Member States come together to agree on the Organization’s priorities and policies.

At the Health Assembly, country delegates make decisions on health goals and strategies that will guide their own public health work and the work of the WHO Secretariat to move the world towards better health and well-being for all. The Health Assembly also serves as a forum for reporting back on the implementation of the areas of work set, in order to determine what has been achieved and decide on strategies for addressing the gaps.

First steps in reforming global health emergency rules agreed at WHO meeting

At the 75th WHA, countries also agreed to an initial U.S.-led push to reform of the rules around disease outbreaks, known as the International Health Regulations. This was followed after early opposition from Africa and others was overcome.

The reform sought by Washington and backed by others like Japan and the European Union is a first step in a broader reform of the IHR, which set out countries’ legal obligations around disease outbreaks, expected to take up to two years.

African countries had voiced opposition to the approach but this was overcome through changes to the proposal’s wording.  The new proposal, yet to be formally approved by the assembly, now refers to steps to address equity, which is a key issue for developing countries including many in Africa that are seeking guarantees about the sharing of vaccines and treatments for future health emergencies.

India’s ASHA workers lauded and awarded:

India’s one million strong community health workforce of the Accredited Social Health Activists, popularly known as ASHAs were awarded the Global Health Leadership award at the 75th WHA. The ASHAs were among the six awardees announced at the Assembly, to recognize their outstanding contributions to advancing global health, demonstrated leadership and commitment to regional health issues.

ASHA workers in India were honoured at the congregation for their outstanding contribution to advancing global health, demonstrated leadership, and commitment to regional health issues. They were recognized for ensuring those living in poverty can access primary healthcare services.

A release from the World Health Organisation said, “ASHA (which means hope in Hindi) are more than 1 million female volunteers in India, honoured for the crucial role in linking the community with the health system, to ensure those living in rural poverty can access primary healthcare services, as shown throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than one million female volunteers ASHA workers provide maternal care and immunization for children against vaccine-preventable diseases; community health care; treatment for hypertension and tuberculosis; and core areas of health promotion for nutrition, sanitation, and healthy living, across the length and breadth of the country.

India expresses dismay over WHO’s excess death report:

Meanwhile, India expressed its disappointment over the manner in which the World Health Organisation (WHO) prepared and published its report on its estimate of 47 lakh excess deaths due to Covid-19, disregarding authentic official data.

On May 5, WHO released a report that, according to its estimates, India’s death toll was nearly ten times higher than India’s official count of 4.8 lakh Covid-19 deaths during the last two years. The government has questioned the report, saying that the estimates are drawn from flawed mathematical assumptions and that country-specific authentic data published by the statutory authority was not taken into account.

Other noteworthy decisions/announcements:

World Health Assembly takes historic decision to sustainably finance WHO

Delegates at the World Health Assembly agreed to a landmark decision on sustainable financing for the WHO, adopting a series of recommendations from a Sustainable Financing Working Group made up of WHO Member States.

The recommendations aim to make WHO’s funding more predictable and flexible, and less dependent on voluntary contributions. Amongst the recommendations is a request to the Secretariat to develop budget proposals for an increase in assessed contributions (membership dues) to 50 percent of WHO’s core budget by 2030. In the last budget cycle, assessed contributions made up only 16 percent of the approved Programme Budget.

Other recommendations include that the Secretariat explores the feasibility of a replenishment mechanism to further broaden WHO’s financing base and the establishment of a Member States task group on strengthening WHO budgetary, programmatic and financing governance to analyse challenges in governance for transparency, efficiency, accountability and compliance.

WHO’s current financing model has been identified by many experts as posing a risk to the integrity and independence of its work. WHO’s over-reliance on voluntary contributions, with a large proportion earmarked for specific areas of work, results in an misalignment between organizational priorities and the ability to finance them. The recommendations on sustainable financing are designed to substantially address these shortcomings

Preparing cities and urban centres for emergencies

Concurring on the need for cities and urban settings to be better prepared to respond to health emergencies, delegates agreed to a resolution calling for more action and resources in these unique settings.  The resolution called for better funding, planning, cooperation across regions and between cities, and a better overall understanding and focus on unique issues faced by people living in these areas.

Improving the quality, efficiency and capacity of clinical trials

Delegates also passed a resolution for improving clinical trial capabilities in all countries, as a central aspect of strengthening countries’ health systems. The resolution calls for greater efficiency, funding, timely data and results sharing, improved public-private collaboration and better coordination as well as for stronger regulatory and ethical frameworks in countries. During public health emergencies of international concern, the delegates called for greater speed and transparency in conducting and sharing the results of clinical trials, while safeguarding the well-being of trial participants.

Record number of decisions for noncommunicable diseases and mental health

Delegates at the World Health Assembly approved a record number of recommendations relating to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancers, diabetes, heart and lung diseases, as well as to mental health, and their risk factors. The move comes ahead of the fourth United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on the prevention and control of NCDs to be held in 2025, in a drive to accelerate progress towards globally agreed NCD and SDG targets.

Standardization of medical devices nomenclature

Member States requested the Secretariat to continue the integration of information related to terms, codes and definitions of existing systems for naming medical devices, and make them available to Member States, through its Medical Devices Information System (MEDEVIS). They asked the Secretariat to link MEDEVIS to other WHO electronic platforms, such as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The process will advance the management of medical devices with the goal of enhancing access to medical devices; contributing to emergency preparedness and response; and improving patient safety and the quality of health care. The absence of a common standard name for each type of medical device has caused confusion between the various types of devices; affected supply and traceability, and impeded health care delivery.

New Global Health Sector Strategies for HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections

In another important discussion of the World Health Assembly, Member States deliberated and appreciated the new Global Health Sector Strategies for HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections for the period 2022-2030. The global health sector strategies aim to reignite momentum in the responses to these diseases that had been eroded by disruptions to services during the COVID-19 pandemic. They set out to simultaneously strengthen responses to specific diseases while increasingly integrating them into broader health frameworks and taking opportunities, where feasible, to increase impact by addressing aspects of the diseases jointly.













Photo Credits: WHO

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