World Health Summit Ends on Uneven Note
World Health Summit
Dr Ricardo Baptista Leite, President and Founder of UNITE Parliamentarians, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sign MoU at the World Health Summit.

BERLIN – Donors pledged some $2.6 billion more in funding to the global polio eradication initiative (GPEI) as of the closing day of the World Health Summit – which saw its shares of highs and lows in its finale, much like the rest of the three-day event. 

On the plus side, the donations, which included a pledge of $1.2 billion by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced at the conference´s opening session Sunday, mean that the GPEI has come more than half way to meeting the funding target of US$4.8 billion set out in its 2022-2026 Strategy

And WHO´s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also signed a new memorandum of understanding with a global network of parliamentarians, UNITE. The network will collaborate with the global health agency to mobilize elected officials around the world in the campaign for a pandemic accord as well as other milestone global health aims. 

On the downside, a new WHO report released at the summit described the setbacks in women’s, children’s and adolescent health recorded during the pandemic – rolling back years of progress.  

And as with the Summit´s opening, marred by disruptions by climate protestor,  closing day saw its share of reputational woes – of an entirely different nature. 

Sexual assault charges levied at WHO staff member

As conference goers got set to push through the final day of the summit on Tuesday morning, news broke that a female attendee had reported being sexually assaulted by a WHO staff member the night before.

¨I was sexually assaulted tonight at the World Health Summit,” tweeted Rosie James, a British-Canadian medical doctor, who had filled her social media account up to that point with detailed coverage of conference events on topics ranging from HIV to women and migration.

¨This was not the first time in the global health sphere that this has occurred (for MANY of us). I will be reporting it. So disappointing and disheartening. We must do better she said

WHO´s response was swift and public. Dr Tedros quickly issued a statement saying the WHO would have zero tolerance for any sexual misbehaviour, while senior WHO staff met with Ms James to collect her account of the incident.  

The alleged attacker was immediately sent packing to Geneva, where he will face a formal investigation, WHO sources later told Health Policy Watch.  

Others who said that they had witnessed the incident, also proffered support: ¨So sorry that this unacceptable behaviour happened @rosiejames96. You can count on myself and others who witnessed this happen for support, tweeted Brian Li Han Wong, a young health professional, who had just been appointed to a new WHO Youth Council.

Setbacks in women´s and children´s health also revealed 

The new WHO report, ¨Protect the Promise¨, released Tuesday, showed that women’s and children’s health has suffered globally as the impacts of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change converge with devastating effects.

A child born in a low-income country still has an average life expectancy at birth of around 63 years, compared to 80 in a high-income country. This 17-year survival gap has changed little over recent years, the organization noted. In 2020, five million children died even before the age of 5, mostly from preventable or treatable causes. Meanwhile, most maternal, child, and adolescent deaths and stillbirths are concentrated in just two regions – sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The UN analysis revealed more staggering figures:

  • More than 45 million children had acute malnutrition in 2020.  Nearly three-quarters of these children live in lower-middle-income countries. Some 149 million children were stunted in 2020, with Africa as the only region where the numbers of children affected by stunting increased over the past 20 years.
  • The six countries with the highest numbers of internally displaced persons – Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen – are also among the top 10 food insecure countries.
  • A woman in sub-Saharan Africa has around a 130 times higher risk of dying from causes relating to pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Europe or North America. Coverage of antenatal care, skilled birth attendance, and postnatal care is far from reaching all women in low- and middle- income countries, leaving them at elevated risk of death and disability.
  • Millions of children and their families are experiencing poor physical and mental health from recent humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia, Ukraine and Yemen. In 2021, a record 89.3 million people worldwide were driven from their homes by war, violence, persecution, and human rights abuse.

Failure to address gaping inequalities

“Almost three years on from the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic’s long-term impact on the health and well-being of women, children and adolescents is becoming evident: their chances for healthy and productive lives have declined sharply,” said Tedros at the launch of the report in Berlin.  “As the world emerges from the pandemic, protecting and promoting the health of women, children and young people is essential for supporting and sustaining the global recovery.”

“The report advocates for countries to continue investing in health services, in all crises, and to re-imagine health systems that can truly reach every woman, child, and adolescent, no matter who they are or where they live,” added Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and the Board Chair of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.

“The impacts of COVID-19, conflicts, and climate crises have raised the stakes for vulnerable communities, revealing the weaknesses and inequities in health care systems and reversing hard-won progress for women, children, and adolescents – but we are not powerless to change this,” said UNICEF Executive Catherine Russell.

Speed dating for consultants or meaningful dialogue?

Some critics complained that the summit was overloaded with too many events and talking heads – what some described as ¨speed dating for consultants.¨

On the other hand, the Summit, the first to be formally co-sponsored by WHO, also provided a new venue for more informal dialogue between WHO´s top echelons and diverse groups of civil society, including activists, students and the private sector – going well beyond the highly-scripted meetings of the annual World Health Assembly.

And as Tedros noted in his closing remarks, along with the funds raised for polio eradication, WHO also signed onto a number of new civil society collaborations at the Berlin event.

Those included a new agreement with the International Association of National Public Health Institutes to strengthen public health services, particularly for emergencies; a collaboration with a new tobacco cessation consortium, including private sector participants; and the memorandum of understanding agreed with UNITE, a network of global parliamentarians focused on global health.

Global Parliamentarians muster forces to fight for change 

Parliamentarians from six WHO regions speak about global health challenges at the World Health Summit event where WHO signed an MoU with UNITE.

Such collaboration offers WHO a new and valuable channel for reaching out beyond top national government officials to more diverse groups of elected politicians who control national budgets and develop legislative priorities. 

¨Together we will work together to advance universal access to health, sustainable finance for health strengthening, and strengthening the global health security architecture, especially the implementation of the international accord in countries,¨ said Tedros during a signing ceremony with Ricardo Baptista Leite, UNITE´s President and Founder. 

¨Nearly 20 years ago, I started working as a young medical doctor in an infectious diseases ward in Portugal, where I met patients who couldn´t make it to the hospital because they couldn´t afford public transportation and a man in his twenties who died [from HIV] without feeling a last hug and kiss from his loving ,¨ recalled UNITE president Baptista Leite in his remarks to Tedros.

¨When I was elected for the first time into the parliament, I felt that responsibility to be part of the fight for a more equitable society at home and abroad. And that is why, six years ago exactly at the World Health Summit in Berlin, I pitched an idea of creating a network of parliamentarians that would then become leaders for global health.¨

Image Credits: Fletcher/Health Policy Watch.

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