The 74th World Health Assembly focuses on resilience and equity

Virtual meeting of the 74th World Health Assembly
10 June 2021

At WHA74, participants examined the global response to COVID-19, future pandemic preparedness, equitable access to medicines, social determinants of health and antimicrobial resistance.

The 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) was held virtually again this year, 24th-31st May, guided by the theme “Ending this pandemic, preventing the next: building together a healthier, safer and fairer world”.

While cancer and non-communicable diseases did not feature significantly in discussions on the response to COVID-19 and pandemic preparedness, there was a clear recognition that essential services for non-COVID-19 diseases have to continue through a pandemic. 

Universal Health Coverage

Member States highlighted the need to invest in health promotion and disease prevention. In particular, Universal Health Coverage (UHC) was repeatedly mentioned as central to countries’ national security and well-being, and a critical component of pandemic preparedness and response to build the health and resilience of national populations.

In a joint statement on pandemic planning with the NCD Alliance and World Cancer Research Fund International, UICC highlighted the importance of not delaying or suspending vaccination and screening programmes, and otherwise ensuring that essential services for cancer and other NCDs continue. The statement also urged Member States to invest in comprehensive mental health services, provide support for the health workforce, increase monitoring and data collection, increase investments in health promotion and disease prevention, and include civil society and communities, including people living with NCDs, in planning for pandemic preparedness and recovery. The full statement is accessible here.

Access to medicines

The discussion on how to provide more equitable access to medicines included the review of a WHO report from December 2020 on expanding access to effective treatments for cancer and rare and orphan diseases. The report focused on progress made in implementing cancer prevention and control in the context of an integrated approach and in access to medicines, vaccines, medical devices, diagnostics, assistive products, cell- and gene-based therapies and other health technologies, as well as the transparency of markets.

Member States stressed the importance of collaboration for improving the affordability of medicines as well as the need for regulatory cooperation and for national plans and strategies to ensure equitable access.

Notable barriers include high costs and a lack of transparency for prices, supply chain disruptions, weak regulatory systems and substandard medicines. Solutions include developing national and regional manufacturing hubs, strengthening regulatory capacity and facilitating supply chain and procurement mechanisms.

UICC and NCD Alliance issued a statement on "Strengthening local production of medicines and other health technologies to improve access".

Social determinants of health

The Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) refer to the conditions in which people grow, learn, live, work and age. A report developed by the WHO in January 2021 explored the impact of the social determinants of health globally and the impact of COVID-19 in exacerbating existing inequities and their impacts on health.

Discussions centred on the report and a resolution proposed notably by Peru to recognise the need to establish, strengthen and maintain monitoring systems on health inequalities and the impact of policies on SDoH at national, regional and global levels. The resolution also seeks to mobilise multistakeholder actions nationally and globally to reduce social and health inequities and includes a series of actions for the WHO Secretariat. 

The resolution was well supported, and many Member States highlighted how a clear understanding of the SDoH can help to improve policy making and better protect health. Examples from Ecuador, which has been working on strengthening health collaborations across cities, and Botwana, with the establishment of the Botswana Health Institute, illustrated how countries have been adopting health policies aimed at improving coordination between government ministries and support more effective data collection and use. 

UICC also provided a statement on the social determinants of health, urging Member States to integrate SDoH into national health planning to interrupt cycles of inequity, and to nsure that policies and programmes are not confined to the health sector and utilise a whole-of-government approach. Read the full statement here.

Antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), including antibiotic resistance, is a serious public health issue. Left unaddressed, 10 million lives could be lost by 2050, with 70% occurring in low-resource settings. It is particularly concerning for cancer patients, as this "silent pandemic’" is undermining recent innovations and progress made in treating cancer. 

The session on AMR at WHA74 reviewed a report outlining the progress made in addressing AMR, including the number of national action plans that are in place, the Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System (GLASS) to raise awareness about the issue, share best practices and support global action.

Specific actions cited were the development of a Global Leaders Group to reinvigorate momentum on AMR, WHO’s efforts to coordinate the global “one health” approach, as well as to support given to national efforts to improve surveillance, build laboratory capacity and develop prevention control practices, including the rational use of drugs.

A number of barriers were also highlighted, including the misuse of medicines, weak regulatory environments and poor infection control practises. There is therefore a need to secure sufficient and sustainable funding (particularly in the implementation of national action plans) and encourage research and development, through technology transfer and knowledge sharing, to ensure equitable access to medicines.

Addressing the threat that AMR poses to progress in cancer care, UICC delivered a statement urging Member States to take a number of actions. These include sharing global data through GLASS; adopting multisectoral policies to ensure access to and the rational use of antimicrobials and diagnostics in addressing the growing problem of drug resistance; addressing the issue of substandard and falsified medicines; and engaging in multisectoral partnerships and sustained investment to address the increased need of research and development for novel antimicrobials and rapid diagnostic tests. Read the full statement here.

Last update: 
Thursday 10 June 2021
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