68th Session of WHO Regional Committee Meeting for Africa Opens in Dakar

Friday, August 31, 2018

Ministers of Health and Senior Government Officials from 47 African countries are currently meeting in Dakar, Senegal for the 68th session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa, from the 27th – 31st August 2018.

This high level Regional Health Meeting was officially opened by His Excellency, Mr. Macky Sall, President of the Republic of Senegal.

The annual flagship gathering was attended by over 400 delegates including WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Representatives of UN Agencies, Funds and Programmes, civil society, bilateral, multilateral organisations and other development partners were in attendance at this annual event.

High on the agenda of the meeting was the launch of a new report on the State of Health in the African Region. The report provides a comprehensive overview of the state of health; the state of health and related services and the state of health systems performance and how these affect the attainment of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs in the region.

The report noted that people in Africa still have access to a very limited range of services – a situation that is contrary to the expectations of universal health coverage. Adolescents, and elderly persons in Africa are particularly left behind. In addition, countries are not effectively ensuring that services are person centered and responsive.

According to the report, an analysis of the performance of the health system across the Region shows that they are performing at nearly half (49%) of their full capacity, while access to essential services and resilience of systems to shocks are the most critical variables limiting system performance. With over 150 000 cholera cases, including 3000 deaths, reported from 17 countries in the African Region in 2017 alone, delegates will discuss proposals aimed at eliminating cholera by 2030.

 The proposals will include strengthening epidemiological and laboratory surveillance, mapping cholera hotspots, improving access to timely treatment, strengthening partnerships and community engagement through health promotion, increasing investments in clean water and sanitation for the most vulnerable communities, and promoting research.

The delegates will also discuss the challenges and proposed actions to be taken by Member States and partners to address the slow progress in tackling the rising non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the region.

The need to ensure that people have access to medicines is one of the issues on the agenda among others. Despite progress in access to treatment and prevention for some diseases in recent years, many countries are still struggling to provide full access to the health products their populations need. 

In addition, the rise in non-communicable diseases (such as cancer and diabetes), under-resourced health systems and the high cost of new medical products are undermining governments’ commitments to reduce out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditure on medicines and other health services. Some of the recommendations to be deliberated are the need for stronger pharmaceutical policies, better quality oversight of medical products, collaboration on health products procurement.

The Regional Committee, WHO’s Governing Body in the African Region reviews WHO’s work in the Region and give orientations on actions to improve the health situation in Member States.

It has been noted during the official opening ceremony that Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) accounts for high mortality rates in the region and thus the need for Member States to fight NCDs through the application of workable solutions to address its burden.

Furthermore, gaps in disease surveillance for early detection have been noted and thus strengthening of collaboration between countries and active community engagement for community activity using Health Promotion approaches as a foundation to achieve the goals have been recommended for Member States to adopt and implement.

 Other areas such as training of staff in key areas of health care delivery, development of actions for the successful implementation of the recommendations of the Joint External Evaluation of the International Health Regulation 2005 by Member States.

 It has been concluded that NCDs and disease outbreaks are revealing the weakness of the health systems in the African Region and that more efforts are needed by governments in the region to fight communicable and non-communicable disease burden.

Despite the obstacles and challenges hindering the achievement of Universal Coverage in the region, the Government of Senegal through the Ministry of Health and Social Action was able to initiate a project to improve health supply services, equipped the health facilities with adequate and appropriate staff, identified specialized areas for the Medical Doctors and established a national health insurance scheme to cover the majority of the population.

It has been noted that domestic funding alone would not be able to meet the objectives in meeting Universal Health Coverage, but the support from the technical and financial partners is essential.

The overall mission of WHO identified in the Global Programme of Work (GPW) 2019-2023 is three-fold: (i) promote health, (ii) keep the world safe and (iii) serve the vulnerable. Specifically, these goals are the “triple billion” to be achieved by 2023: 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being, 1 billion more people protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage.

Achieving universal health coverage (UHC) requires a consistent emphasis on building strong and resilient health systems. Some of the greatest challenges to achieving UHC stem from persistent barriers to accessing health services and to accessing affordable and quality-assured health products. Equitable access to health products is a global priority.

Every disease strategy includes access to health products for prevention, diagnosis, treatment, palliative care and rehabilitation. The availability, accessibility, acceptability, and affordability of medicines and vaccines of assured quality need to be addressed in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular target 3.82.

Over the past decade a large number of new medicines and health products have been developed and commercialized, presenting new opportunities and challenges for health systems. General infrastructure improvements and societal development have, along with health systems strengthening and access to medical products, resulted in better health outcomes in many countries.

 There has been progress in prevention and treatment of some diseases contributing to quality of life improvements and in certain settings, an increase in life expectancy.

The report on ‘Addressing the global shortage of, and access to, medicines and vaccines’ presented to the 71st World Health Assembly in May 2018 proposed actions for prioritization according to: WHO’s comparative advantage, providing value for money, and leading to achievable and sustainable improvements. These prioritized actions form the basis for the activities, actions and deliverables outlined in this report.

Health research and development (R&D) that is guided by public health needs is required for improving access to medicines and vaccines. This is especially important for neglected diseases as well as emerging infectious disease pathogens, and new antibiotic therapies and other medical products that promise limited return on investment.

The current market model also fails to deliver products for certain priority target groups such as children and pregnant women. In line with the Global strategy and plan of action on public, health, innovation and intellectual property (GSPA), which recommends prioritizing needs for, and promoting research and development, WHO is playing a catalytic role in the R&D for these neglected areas where there is a compelling unmet public health need for new products.

 The role for WHO includes coordinating the efforts of different actors by setting R&D priorities, identifying R&D gaps, defining desired product profiles, and in facilitating the development of affordable, suitable new treatments, diagnostics and devices.

This work is needs-driven and evidence-based and guided by the principles of affordability, effectiveness, efficiency, and equity in line with the CEWG report.

By: Modou Njai, Director of Health Promotion and Education, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare