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WHO Executive Board opens on optimistic note

News release

The Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) began its twice-yearly session today on an optimistic note with a report highlighting progress in many areas of public health from the Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan.

Before describing progress however, Dr Chan drew attention to current threats to health arising from instability and civil unrest, which disrupt routine health services and compromise access to basic and emergency care. In reviewing the events of the last year, Dr Chan highlighted three trends that gave her personal encouragement.

First, she cited the increasing willingness of development partners, UN agencies, and funding facilities to invest in health systems, calling this a "striking and welcome change from the past."

Secondly, she applauded the acceptance of climate change as a reality by world leaders. "Up to now, the polar bear has been the poster child for climate change. We must use every scientifically sound and politically correct mechanism in the book to convince leaders that humanity really is the most important species endangered by climate change," Dr Chan told Board Members.

"According to the latest projections, released in November, Africa will be severely affected by as early as 2020. This is just a dozen years away. Our sector has good evidence about what droughts, floods, storms, heatwaves, air pollution, malnutrition, displaced populations, and water-borne and vector-borne diseases mean for health." Climate change and health will be the focus for World Health Day which will be celebrated on 7 April 2008.

Her third reason for encouragement was the revival of interest in primary health care. “I believe we will not be able to reach the health-related Millennium Development Goals unless we return to the values, principles, and approaches of primary health care. I believe we must reach these Goals, as the ability of countries to adapt to climate change will depend on the state of population health and the systems in place to protect it.” Primary health care will be addressed in this year's World Health Report.

She highlighted two ways in which public health can "improve the world in permanent ways": the eradication of polio and of guinea worm disease. "Both initiatives have pushed previously widespread diseases into just a few small corners of the world. Indeed, we have these diseases cornered in a final stand-off. We must finish the job." For the high-mortality diseases, she noted some good news, but said it had to be qualified. For HIV/AIDS for example, the estimates published in late 2007 indicate that global HIV incidence peaked in the late 1990s and that the number of people dying of AIDS-related illness declined over the past two years.

"This is encouraging news. But we are still a long way from the goal of universal access. The yearly number of new infections outpaces our ability to expand access to treatment. We are not doing enough to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Some governments are still closing their eyes to infections in high-risk groups."

Dr Chan reported to the Board that the global annual incidence of tuberculosis has stabilized in some parts of the world and may even be declining. "Tuberculosis, control efforts are paying off," she said, but she drew attention to the worldwide emergence of extensively drug-resistant TB as an especially alarming trend.

Dr Chan told Board Members that in recent years malaria has risen to unprecedented heights in the political and public profile. "The best reason for optimism comes from the results we are seeing in some African countries, particularly following better coverage with bednets and use of the newer strategy for home-based management."

Dr Chan confirmed that considerable progress has also been made in combating neglected tropical diseases, which especially affect the "bottom billion" - the world's poorest people. "Last year China and Egypt announced the elimination of lymphatic filariasis, a disease that currently disables some 40 million people. Other countries are on the verge of similar achievements. These are victories, not just for health, but also in our struggle to free people to live productive lives."

In her closing statement, Dr Chan addressed a potentially huge gain for children around the world; the global immunization strategy, which was developed jointly by WHO and UNICEF in collaboration with many Member States and immunization partners. WHO is reporting a massive reduction in deaths from measles, particularly in Africa, and in increased coverage of routine immunization. "Progress in 2006 was record-breaking. I believe it is useful to look at what lies behind this achievement and what it promises for the future."

Other issues on the Board's agenda include: strategies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol; the international migration of health personnel; female genital mutilation, pandemic influenza preparedness, the implementation of the International Health Regulations and the health needs of people who migrate to new countries.

The Executive Board is composed of 34 individuals technically qualified in the field of health, each one designated by a Member State elected to do so by the World Health Assembly. Member States are elected for three-year terms. The main functions of the Executive Board are to give effect to the decisions and policies of the Assembly, to advise it and generally facilitate its work. This session of the Board is scheduled to last from 21-26 January.

For more information, please contact:

Christine McNab
Acting Director, Communications Department
Tel.: +41 22 791 4688
Mobile: +41 79 254 6815
E-mail: mcnabc@who.int

Emma Ross
Communications Officer, Communications Department
Tel.: +41 22 791 1492
Mobile: +41 79 475 5534
E-mail: rosse@who.int

Chris Black
Multimedia Communications Officer, Department of Communications
Tel.: +41 22 791 1460
Mobile: +41 79 472 6054
E-mail: blackc@who.int

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