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World Health Assembly opens with appeals for more ambitious approach to health problems

The 58th World Health Assembly opened today with a series of appeals from senior figures in the health world for a more ambitious approach to the health problems affecting poor people around the world.

Dr LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization, urged countries to work together "to ensure that our action is well-informed, and our knowledge is well-used. Health work teaches us with great rigour that action without knowledge is wasted effort, just as knowledge without action is a wasted resource," he said.

The WHO Director-General also drew attention to what he called the "most serious known health threat the world is facing today, which is avian influenza." He pointed out that "The timing cannot be predicted, but rapid international spread is certain once the susceptible virus appears. This is a grave danger for all people in all countries," he said. "We must do everything in our power to maximize preparedness. When this event occurs, our response has got to be immediate, comprehensive and effective."

Guest speakers at the World Health Assembly were: His Excellency, Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, Bill Gates, Co-Founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Ms Ann Veneman, the new Executive Director of UNICEF.

Maldives President urges more attention to environment and health

Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, invited the Assembly to imagine a day when "all of a sudden, and without warning the sea swells to some four metres, and crashes through the whole island. Within a matter of minutes, the waters recede as the tsunami rips through the Indian Ocean, In its wake, loved ones go missing, never ever to be seen alive again, the whole island is turned into rubble, and the entire community is left in shock."

Mr Gayoom expressed his gratitude to the international community for its swift response, but said he was concerned that donors have been slow to provide assistance for the cleanup operation and for "the important task of reconstructing the damaged water and sewerage infrastructure."

He also spoke of the major changes in the world over recent years: "Globalization, fast air travel and trade have increased the opportunities for partnerships and socio-economic integration. But these have also opened windows for the rapid spread of infectious diseases from one part of the world to another within a matter of days."

The main killer infectious diseases continue to have a devastating impact, but Mr Gayoom said, "concerns about the emergence of new pathogens have become equally worrying." He also warned that more attention must be paid to the impact of the environment on health. "The links between the environment and health show that addressing the challenges in both areas calls for a global partnership, where everyone becomes part of the solution and none a problem."

Bill Gates says science and technology offer hope for the future

In his speech, Mr Gates spoke of the "heroic efforts" of health workers in situations where "disease is rampant and resources are scarce." But he warned the delegates that "The world is failing billions of people" because people in rich countries do not have to face the health problems that are killing millions of poor people.

Mr Gates went on to underline his hope for the future, which rests on what he called the "astonishing miracles" of science and technology. "We are on the verge of taking historic steps to reduce diseases in the developing world," he said. "Never before have we had anything close to the tools we have today to both spread awareness of the problems and discover and deliver solutions."

In order to build a world where "all people, no matter where they're born, can have the preventive care, vaccines, and treatment they need to live a healthy life," Mr Gates said everyone has to play a role:

  • governments in developed countries should increase their financial commitments;
  • governments in developing countries should dramatically increase the proportion of their budgets spent on health;
  • more resources should be devoted to research for diseases affecting people in developing countries;
  • scientists must focus on the delivery of new interventions, not just their development; and
  • people around the world should urge their governments to put more money into efforts to "make market forces work better for the world's poorest people."

Ann Veneman of UNICEF reminded the delegates that "There are still nearly 11 million children who die every year of preventable causes. Almost always they are the poorest and most marginalized."

"In the two weeks I have been at UNICEF; I have heard lots of numbers," she said. "But that one … 11 million … stands out."

Ms. Veneman went on to express her belief that, "we can do much more in the next 10 years to expand access to safe water and provide better nutrition. Every day, 4,000 children die of water-related diseases that are preventable. And malnutrition shares the blame for about half of the nearly 11 million children who die needlessly every year," she said.

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For more information contact:

Mr Iain Simpson
Communications Officer
Director-General’s Office - WHO
Telephone: +41 22 791 3215
Mobile phone: +41 79 475 5534
E-mail: simpsoni@who.int