World Health Assembly 2019 to focus on meeting SDG goals

The assembly, beginning from May 20, will discuss on the theme Universal Health Coverage: leaving no-one behind 

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 18 May 2019

Access to health care is a basic human right and is critical for public health, safety and economic security, which many countries of the world are unable to provide. For this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will organise its annual World Health Assembly (WHA) focussing on the general theme "Universal health coverage: leaving no-one behind”.

The annual gathering, which will be held from May 20-28 in Geneva, Switzerland, will revolve around this subject which is crucial considering that the deadline for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals is looming near. Universal Health Coverage is considered the umbrella target which would help the world meet other health targets such as reduction in child mortality, controlling epidemics and reducing deaths from air pollution.

Transparency related to medicine prices, access to biotherpeutics and pandemic preparedness in context of Nagoya protocol are some of the issues that are likely to take the center stage at the assembly this year.

High price of drugs is likely to be discussed in detail at the meeting as this impedes progress towards Universal Health Coverage. Public health experts demand that the information on costs of manufacturing of medicines, vaccines and health technologies should be transparent ensuring that pharma companies do not make undue profits at the cost of patients.

A related issue, which is not listed on the agenda of the meeting, is on the access to biotherapeutics, which are produced through biological processes and include lifesaving drugs like human insulin. Sixty-four global organisations have written to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of WHO, to update on the resolution on “access to biotherapeutic products including similar biotherapeutic products and ensuring their quality, safety and efficacy”.

In 2014, WHA asked WHO to do this but the UN body failed to do this so far. Instead of updating, it merely put out a Q&A on the subject in which it said that an update is not needed. Public health experts say that non-updation has affected the availability of affordable medicines to people. According to activists, WHO is creating hurdles in getting biosimilars in the market as the guidelines are being misused by pharma companies.

Another issue that is likely to be discussed is the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework which was adopted in 2011. This framework was to guide virus sharing and benefit sharing in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity which gives a country right over its biological resources. This is important considering that vaccines developed using the shared virus might not be available to the poor who had provided the virus. Though the framework included the handling of genetic sequence data it failed to consider technologies that can use genetic sequencing to manufacture the biological material needed for vaccine development.

The gathering will also have Indian delegates. “We expect the officials will raise these important issues at the meeting,” says K M Gopakumar, Legal Advisor to Third World Network who is attending the meeting.

The WHA will include eight technical briefings and more than 30 side events. India would be hosting three side events along with other countries. These include a session on Universal Health Coverage in context of the Global Strategy on Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents Health. The discussion would revolve around midwifery education. In other session, experts would debate nutrition innovations and non-communicable diseases prevention. The third side event is on malaria and will deliberate on improving the fight to reach public health objectives for 2030.


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