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The 72nd World Health Assembly – A decisive moment for the WHO, UHC and Eye Health

Published: 06.06.2019
Jessica Crofts-Lawrence Head of Policy and Advocacy

The World Health Assembly (WHA) is an annual gathering of all the world’s health ministers and a key opportunity for advocates to be seen and heard on their respective health issues. This year, the theme of the WHA was “Health for All” and as such there was a strong focus on closing the gap and leaving no one behind. It was set to be a significant WHA with a range of important internal and external questions for the World Health Organization (WHO) on the agenda. It was also my first time attending the WHA and I was looking forward to witnessing the enthusiasm and engagement from all those who champion health across the world.

After a week of speeches, technical briefings, side events and countless meetings in the bustling WHO serpentine, the 72nd WHA drew to a close. Member States committed to invest in safe water and sanitation; agreed a new global strategy on health, environment and climate change; approved a landmark agreement to improve the transparency of pricing for medicines and health products; and decided to accelerate and scale up action to prevent and treat non-communicable diseases – to name but a few. They also adopted the 11th Edition of the International Classification of Diseases, the international standard for reporting health conditions, including eye health conditions. Of course, this is only the very beginning of the roadmap to achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and the triple billion goal…

Speaking to health ministers and delegations from 194 countries, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this was a “decisive moment for public health”. He is right. Never has there been a greater opportunity for public health issues on the global stage. UHC now features on the agenda of most international forums, from the World Bank to G20 meetings. In September, world leaders will come together in New York to adopt a Political Declaration at the first High Level Meeting on UHC. The Zero Draft released by the co-facilitators, Thailand and Georgia, just 2 weeks ago, is a good starting point. IAPB and the UN Friends of Vision has been an important voice in the negotiation process, advocating for greater recognition of eye health, health systems strengthening, human resources investment and a stronger emphasis on health financing.

This is also a decisive moment for the WHO. Over the last year, the organisation has undergone some of the most wide-ranging reforms in its history. At the heart of these reforms is Tedros’ favourite new buzz word: IMPACT. The intention is to break away from historical silos and make the WHO more agile, diverse and less bureaucratic in order to deliver real results for real people. The new budget supporting Tedros’ ambitious plan got the green light from Member States at the WHA. Now only time will tell whether the reforms will result in a true transformational shift for the organisation rather than a simple staff reshuffle.

Finally, and continuing this theme of decisive moments – the same is true for eye health. It is essential that we as a sector harness this political will to achieve UHC and ensure that eye health is integrated into the UHC framework. As you might expect, IAPB’s engagement at the WHA centred around the upcoming launch of the World Report on Vision and how we can obtain a global commitment to prioritise, scale-up and integrate comprehensive eye care services. We met with health ministers and WHO representatives, including the Health Metrics Department, during the WHA. These conversations will continue throughout this year and will hopefully culminate in a World Health Assembly Resolution at the 73rd WHA in 2020. Of course, this will only be the very beginning of the roadmap to achieving eye health for all…

Disclaimer: The views, ideas, technologies or policy positions in these blog posts belong to the authors and do not necessarily describe IAPB’s position or views on these matters.