Resolutions On Meningitis Elimination, NTDs Reduction, and Epilepsy Detection and Treatment Adopted at WHA
Executive Board Room in WHO Headquarters, Geneva, during the virtual resumed session of the 73rd World Health Assembly.

The close of the World Health Assembly (WHA), Friday, saw the adoption of the first-ever resolution to eliminate meningitis by 2030 – a disease which has its biggest impacts in sub-Saharan Africa, and with a 50 percent fatality rate if left untreated. 

The closing hours of the WHA also saw the approval of a landmark roadmap for reducing the burden of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by 90% by 2030 – NTDs refer to some 18 parasitic, helminthic and vector-born diseases that affect over one billion of the world’s poorest people.   

Another resolution to increase treatment and control of epilepsy and other neurological disorders was also approved. 

Neurological disorders are the second leading cause of death worldwide, yet many, including epilepsy, have preventable causes. The approved resolution plans to address the current gaps and research needs to improve prevention, early detection, treatment, care, and rehabilitation. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the World Health Assembly’s third plenary meeting on Friday.

“You have approved a comprehensive resolution on emergency preparedness, a new road map to defeat meningitis by 2030, a new road map for neglected tropical diseases, a resolution to scale up action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders, and you declared 2021 the international year of health care workers,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, speaking to member state delegates in his concluding remarks for the 73rd WHA

“Each of these represents an urgent health priority that affects the lives of millions of people and which increases the demands on and expectations of WHO,” he added. 

Roadmap Aims to Reduce Neglected Tropical Diseases by 90% 

In terms of the action on NTDs, the new roadmap sets ambitious targets to be achieved by 2030. The global targets include: reducing those requiring NTD treatment by 90 percent; eliminating at least one NTD in 100 countries; eradicating dracunculiasis and yaws; and reducing the disability-adjusted life years related to NTDs by 75 percent. 

“The new road map addresses critical gaps across multiple diseases, integrates and mainstreams approaches within national health systems and coordinates action across sectors,” said Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director of WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, in a WHO press release.

A young girl receives a meningitis vaccine.

As for meningitis, administration of meningococcal vaccines can help prevent  the major bacterial forms of the disease among young children. The new WHA resolution aims to strengthen vaccine coverage as well as disease surveillance in order to eliminate periodic meningitis outbreaks and epidemics. 

In a discussion before the resolution was adopted, member states such as Brunei, told WHA delegates how they had succeeded in integrating meningitis vaccines into their regular basket of health services. 

“Brunei Darussalam has developed a comprehensive program which has been successful in protecting against vaccine preventable diseases, including meningitis, with a high vaccination coverage rate…ensuring high protection against childhood meningitis,” said the delegate from i on Thursday. “Accessibility to meningococcal vaccinations is now provided nationwide.”

Regarding epilepsy, Mexico echoed the resolution’s emphasis on early detection and treatment of patients with neurological disorders. Along with providing essential care, Mexico’s delegate said prevention and diagnosis would help “the fight against the marginalization of these people [with epilepsy and other neurological disorders].” 

“This [epilepsy action plan] will allow the member states to better work with international collaboration and to engage politically on this issue,” he said. 

Health Conditions In Occupied Palestinian Territories 

The Assembly also approved a decision requesting the Director-General to provide health systems support to Palestinians living in Israeli-occuped territories, including for this year’s COVID-19 pandemic. A WHO report on “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan” is issued every year for the WHA, sparking an annual cycle of protests by Israel and its allies.  

In this year’s debate, Israel, Canada and the United States opposed the draft decision, noting once more that the Palestinian conflict was receiving special treatment – in comparison to politically charged debates over other occupied and contested territories, which the WHA typically tries to avoid.  

Said the US delegate:  “The United States believes the current draft decision does not meet our shared objective of a World Health Assembly focused purely on public health and that refrains from singling out countries on a political basis. Rather, the draft decision before us perpetuates such politicization.”

Added Israel: “Israel has strengthened its cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in order to prevent, mitigate and address the spread of the virus in the region.” 

Charged Turkey, a co-sponsor of the draft decision on Palestine, said: “12 years of inhuman blockade has had a profound effect on the health sector, as well as on underlying determinants of health. COVID-19 worsened an already dire situation and the health system continues to operate under pressure from shortages of basic supplies.”

Meanwhile, Cuba, another a co-sponsor of the draft resolution, and a member of the  Palestinian observer delegation at the WHA called upon Israel and the US to respect the recommendations by the Director-General in his report. He said Palestinians were keen for  the WHO “to continue to provide technical assistance to Palestine,” while Israel should “respect its obligations as a member of the World Health Organization.”

This year’s WHA session saw several other such disputes creep to the surface – only to be quickly suppressed in debates. Protests by member states over the WHA’s failure to include Taiwan as a observer – due to objections from China – were shut down on the floor of the Assembly – after a closed-door meeting of delegates decided that Taiwan would not be admitted.  Later, the WHA moderator also shut down comments by Armenia, when it accused Azerbaijan of  “ethnic cleansing” of Armenian nationals living in Nagorno-Karabakh – a territory inhabited by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan, where bloody battles have occurred in recent week. Under a recent Russian-brokered peace deal, Azerbaijan will fully control of the area, forcing Armenian troops to withdraw and, along with them, many civilians.  

Image Credits: WHO, WHO, WHO.

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