UN health agency spotlights role of health in sustainable development as governing body begins session

Director-General of the WHO Margaret Chan addresses the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva23 May 2016 – Health holds a prominent and central role that benefits the entire sustainable development agenda, because the ultimate objective of all development activities is to sustain human lives in good health, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said today, calling for greater efforts to combat the major challenges of antimicrobial resistance, the world drug problem and the high costs of non-communicable diseases on the road to strengthening health systems.

“WHO, together with its multiple partners, is poised to save many more millions of lives. I ask you to remember this purpose as we go through an agenda that can mean so much for the future,” she added.

Dr. Chan noted that public health constantly struggles to hold infectious diseases at bay, to change lifestyle behaviours, and to find enough money to do these and many other jobs, but sometimes the world needs to “step back and celebrate.”

“Commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) brought focus, energy, creative innovation, and above all money to bear on some of the biggest health challenges that marred the start of this century,” she said.

As such, the world can celebrate the 19,000 fewer children dying every day, a 44 per cent drop in maternal mortality, and the 85 per cent of tuberculosis cases that are successfully cured. Africa, in particular, can celebrate the 60 per cent decline in malaria mortality, while as the result of the fastest scale-up of a life-saving treatment in history, more than 15 million people living with HIV are now receiving antiretroviral therapy, up from just 690,000 in 2000, the Director-General stressed.

An interconnected world leads to global health threats

Highlighting some of the main global health concerns, the Director-General underscored that air pollution is a transboundary hazard that affects the global atmosphere and contributes to climate change, while drug-resistant pathogens, including the growing number of “superbugs,” travel well internationally in people, animals and food. In addition, the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, especially to children, is now a global phenomenon, while safeguarding the quality of pharmaceutical products has become much harder, with complex manufacturing procedures and supply chains spanning multiple companies and countries, she said.ick kiln production is responsible for air pollution in many cities of the world. Credit: UNEP

Moreover, she noted that ensuring the quality of the food supply is also much harder when a single meal can contain ingredients from all around the world, including some potentially contaminated with exotic pathogens. Furthermore, the Ebola outbreak in three small countries had paralyzed the world with fear and travel constraints, while the rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika warns us that an old disease in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency.

‘Slow-motion disasters’ shaping the global health landscape

In addition, the Director-General highlighted that as the international community enters the era of sustainable development, the global health landscape is being shaped by three “slow-motion disasters”: a changing climate, the failure of more and more mainstay antimicrobials, and the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases as the leading killers worldwide.

For its part, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is attempting to ensure that these and many other disasters are averted, the Director-General said.

“The agenda aims to do nothing less than transform the way the world, and the international systems that govern it, work,” Dr. Chan said.