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World Health Assembly: Inching Towards Action?

© Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, mothers2mothers (m2m) attended the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA 77) in Geneva. WHA is an annual meeting during which 194 countries come together to discuss and agree the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) priorities for the year ahead, reflect on progress made and challenges remaining, and discuss and debate other important global health priorities. As well as the official proceedings, there are countless side events spanning a wide variety of health-related topics. The theme of this year’s Assembly was “All for Health, Health for All”. 

Here are our top three takeaways from WHA77.  

1. The Need for Paid, Professional Community Health Workers (CHWs) is Widely Recognised, but Talk is Not Yet Matched by Action 

Agreement that paid, professional community health workers—like the local women living with HIV trained and employed by m2m as Mentor Mothers—are essential to deliver health for all was widespread. CHWs are explicitly mentioned in the new WHO strategy agreed at WHA77, numerous side events focused on CHWs or included CHWs as a key topic of conversation (including events led by the Community Health Impact Coalition and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition), and multiple delegates spoke up for CHWs during official proceedings, including representatives from Australia, Brazil, and Burkina Faso. It is clear that we have moved from “if” we need paid, professional CHWs to achieve universal health coverage (UHC), to “how” we unlock this potential—remarkable progress from just a year or two ago.  

That said, the “how” remains very unclear. Concrete commitments to invest in paid, professional CHWs were few and far between, and a number of speakers still made concerning statements referring to CHWs as “volunteers”.  

All of us involved in the movement for paid, professional CHWs must continue to keep up the pressure, working hand-in-hand with governments and other partners to drive sustainable change and investments aligned with national health strategies, to ensure we truly unlock the full potential of this remarkable workforce.   

2. Climate and Health Agendas Align 

The climate crisis is a health crisis. At WHA77, the intersection of climate and health was clear—perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the first listed priority in the new WHO “General Programme of Work” approved at WHA77 is to “respond to climate change, an escalating health threat in the 21st century”. A separate Climate and Health resolution also received strong support.  

However, discussions on the intersection of climate and health in many debates and side events m2m attended tended to focus on the impact of extreme weather events,  respiratory health, and financing.  We feel a critical element was missing from many discussions—specifically the profoundly negative effect that the climate crisis is expected to have on maternal, newborn and child health, with climate hazards linked to issues such as gestational diabetes, hyper tensive disorders of pregnancy, preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth. At m2m, we believe that we all can—and must—do more to raise awareness of the full range of effects of the climate crisis on family health. And, we must respond through investment in resilient and responsive health systems, including professional community health workers, to prepare for and help to mitigate these impacts, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.   

3. Hunger for Collaboration and Action  

WHA is always a busy and frenetic week. But this year, amidst the intensity, there was a palpable and genuine desire for deeper collaboration across public, private, and not-for-profit attendees, and a shared focus on actions and partnerships that could drive real, lasting change. Perhaps this was fuelled by the sobering key messages of the latest WHO World Health Statistics (released just prior to WHA77)—which highlighted that we are not on track to meet any of the health-related SDGs or to achieve UHC targets. Urgent action is needed, and it felt like this message was clearly received by attendees, and that positive steps are happening.  

At m2m, we stand ready to play our part, and we won’t rest until we achieve our vision of a world where health for all, brings opportunity for all.  

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