Ending this pandemic, preventing the next one: European perspectives at the Seventy-fourth World Health Assembly

The Seventy-fourth World Health Assembly, held on 24–31 May 2021, was once again dominated by discussions on responding to the short- and longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and on ensuring that countries, health systems, organizations and societies are better prepared to meet the challenges of future health threats.

Better prepared, better protected

Central in this Assembly were the questions of how to get out of this health crisis and what lessons to draw from this pandemic. Many expressed the need to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Responding to the WHO Director-General’s plea to support the “drive to December” to achieve the goal of getting 30% vaccinated in every country around the globe by the end of this year, many Member States from the WHO European Region actively committed to step up their engagement in international cooperation and solidarity. This is to include increased contributions to the COVAX Facility.

Countries also made concrete suggestions to accelerate the production of COVID-19 vaccines and increase both supply and access.

The Assembly decided to convene a special session in November to agree on a global treaty on pandemic preparedness and response. In addition, a Member States working group was established that will take forward the recommendations made by the different assessment panels and review committees.

A new, more solid framework for responding to future health threats will be built, which will strengthen WHO politically, legally and financially. All of these issues will also be discussed at the next session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September.

Building back better

More than 30 resolutions and decisions were adopted at this year’s World Health Assembly. These ranged from issues such as diabetes and malaria to eye care and oral health, disabilities, ending violence against children, social determinants of health, and strategic directions for the health and care workforce. The Assembly deliberately looked beyond the direct response to the pandemic and considered its impact in different areas of public health.

Given the current pandemic’s huge impact on mental health and well-being, the Assembly also endorsed an updated, comprehensive mental health action plan for 2013–2030.

“Before the pandemic struck, WHO/Europe already identified mental health as a flagship of the European Programme of Work 2020–2025,” explained WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge in his intervention. “A silver lining of the crisis is an opportunity to forge a new pathway for mental health promotion and care.”

Dr Kluge noted that 9 out of 10 deaths across the pan-European Region are attributable to noncommunicable diseases. “There are many more battles to be fought. In several countries, the incidence of childhood-onset diabetes is on the rise. We know that diabetes also affects communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV. That is why a World Health Assembly resolution on diabetes is so timely,” he said.

Celebrating outstanding contributions to health

Marking the Year of Health and Care Workers, Member States were effusive in their gratitude towards people working in these professions.

In honour of their dedication, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the opening of the Assembly presented a health award to Dr Catalin Denciu, an intensive care physician from Romania who suffered severe burns when trying to save COVID-19 patients from a fire at the Piatra Neamt County Hospital in November last year.

Receiving the award, Dr Denciu said, “Heroes are those who, each day for more than a year, continue to care for their patients and their families despite all difficulties and barriers.”

Despite this recognition, many health workers are still working with insufficient protection, putting their health and lives at risk on a daily basis. Mr Mircea Timofte, President of the Romanian Order of Nurses and of the European Council of Nurses, called for prioritizing the vaccination of health workers.

The crucial work by scientists was also recognized and praised, including through the 2021 Dr LEE Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health. This year’s Memorial Prize was awarded to the National Research Center for Radiation Medicine of the National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine (NRCRM) for its decades of service since the Chernobyl accident 35 years ago.

New members

The Regional Director congratulated Belarus, Denmark, France and Slovenia on their election as new members of the Executive Board, and thanked the outgoing representatives from Germany, Finland, Israel and Romania for their remarkable engagement during their term of 3 years.

Dr Kluge also expressed his appreciation to all the delegates from European Member States who took on various roles as officers to ensure the good conduct of this Assembly. He welcomed the Faroe Islands on its admission as an Associate Member of WHO at the request of Denmark.

About the World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly is WHO’s main governing body, comprising 194 Member States. Every year, delegates from all Member States come together to agree on the Organization’s priorities and policies. At the Assembly, new health goals and strategies are set, and tasks are assigned in order to reach those goals.


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