Welcome and high-level segment
Welcoming delegates to the 72nd session of the WHO Regional Committee (RC72) for Europe, the first in-person RC in three years even as the Region remains impacted by COVID-19, President of Israel Isaac Herzog recalled the challenges faced by societies, including health workers and authorities, in tackling the pandemic.
The President highlighted the importance of international collaboration, particularly as the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on people’s mental health becomes clear – an issue Israel is taking very seriously. President Herzog also praised WHO/Europe for its work in helping to coordinate the pandemic response and highlighted the successful vaccination rollout in Israel.
Opening his address, Dr Tedros thanked Israel for hosting this year’s Regional Committee meeting and for the country’s comprehensive response to COVID-19, including information sharing.
The Director-General noted that weekly deaths from COVID-19 are at their lowest level since the pandemic began, but warned that “a downward trend can be the most dangerous time if it opens the door to complacency.”
Turning to the impact of the war in Ukraine, the Director-General echoed the Regional Director in warning of the devastating impact on the people and health systems of Ukraine. Noting well over 500 WHO-confirmed attacks on health care, Dr Tedros reiterated that the only solution is peace. Separately, the Director-General underlined urgent messages from the Regional Director’s report prepared for the RC, highlighting that tobacco use, alcohol consumption, overweight and obesity, as well as out-of-pocket health spending in the Region clearly indicate that efforts need to be strengthened to address these persistent threats to public health. Dr Tedros also made a reference to another Regional Office priority – the importance of primary health care to realizing universal health coverage and recognizing the need to develop support to ensure ageing populations receive the health care they need.
In his concluding remarks, the Director-General highlighted that WHO’s work is fundamentally about people – working for the most marginalized in society.
In a wide-ranging speech titled “The New Normal: Dual Track”, the Regional Director provided a comprehensive overview of WHO’s work in the European Region, at the half way point in his mandate to deliver the European Programme of Work, 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health” (EPW) – with the core message being the need to continue providing and strengthening essential health care, while also remaining alert and ready to respond to constantly emerging health threats – the dual track of the title. Highlighting a turbulent two and a half years since being elected as Regional Director, Dr Kluge identified four primary ongoing threats to public health across the Region: COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and, more recently, monkeypox and poliomyelitis.
At the same time, Dr Kluge underscored that while COVID-19 has claimed over two million lives across 53 countries encompassing Europe and central Asia, many times that number of lives are lost to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Tackling NCDs must remain a priority for the Region through stronger measures aimed at encouraging healthier diets and exercise, reducing alcohol intake, and more stringent environmental regulations such as those targeting air pollution.
In addition, the Regional Director provided an update on a range of other health issues and areas, including mental health, the European Immunization Agenda 2030, and – not least – the groundbreaking Oslo Medicines Initiative (OMI), which seeks to make access to innovative and life-saving medicines more affordable. Dr Kluge thanked OMI partners for their support, requesting that the two-year initiative now evolve into a longer-term effort with partnerships between governments and health authorities, civil society entities, including patient advocates, and the pharmaceutical industry, to arrive at sustainable solutions, with WHO/Europe serving as a transparent, honest broker.
Following the address, attendees reviewed the work of WHO in the European Region and the implementation of the programme budget. Delegates recognized the support and guidance offered by WHO/Europe to Member States during the COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies in the Region.
The report of the Regional Director provides a snapshot of the key activities of WHO/Europe – guided by the European Programme of Work.
Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commission’s Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, stressed the strong partnership between the European Union (EU) and WHO, and the EU’s commitment to continue to deliver for the western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries in collaboration with WHO, and to support Ukraine and other countries in the refugee response.
Sandra Gallina, the European Commission’s Director-General for Health and Food Safety, commended WHO/Europe for its overall support to countries on COVID-19, as well as the broader health agenda, including NCDs and the OMI.
Dr Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), highlighted the need for a holistic approach to health, societies and economies for healthier people and planet, with a spirit of collaboration across continents and oceans to build cooperation for better health.
Many Member States took the floor to express their thanks for the work of WHO/Europe, and for the leadership of the Regional Director. Several common themes were raised in their remarks, including:
Professor Roger D. Kornberg, known for his groundbreaking research on RNA transcription, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006, opened the afternoon session with a keynote speech during which he reflected on technological and scientific advances to benefit health, including medicine development, vaccine solidarity, precision medicine, and digital health – such as software to convert any cell phone into a personal environmeter with personal warning systems on pollution levels. He highlighted recent advances that have the potential to improve our approach to drug design, which is currently both expensive and time-consuming. Professor Kornberg also noted that we know less than 1% of what there is to know about human biology, underlining the importance of further research.
During the official launch of the Health Systems in Action (HSiA) series of reports, delegates spoke of the importance of these quick health systems overviews in 14 non-EU Member States, which combine evidence, remain neutral, and guide readers through a complex system in a matter of minutes.
Four Member States shared highlights from their Insights reports. Israel valued the way in which the series mapped key challenges so that everyone in the Ministry of Health has a clear, common understanding of the priorities and sees it as an entry point for discussion with the Ministry of Finance. Georgia valued the way the Insights capture the links between all health system elements – workforce, financing, access to medicines – and explained how the country’s primary health care reform adopts precisely this joined-up approach. Montenegro highlighted the way in which the Insights shine a light on data weaknesses, and declared it will use this as a call for action to truly capture and assess progress over time and adjust efforts. Tajikistan valued the opportunity to highlight successes with vaccination and responding to disease outbreaks, and found that comparing performance across countries and over time can motivate efforts and build collaboration.
Participants recognized the need to expand the series so that it covers all non-EU Member States, to renew the reports every two years, to strengthen data availability and quality, and to give clear messages on what can be done to achieve real progress towards universal health coverage. The Insights were seen as an introduction to the health systems for external stakeholders, as a tool for understanding why one country spends less than another on health and how health investments can therefore be boosted, and as a way of contextualizing and celebrating real progress with the EPW.
The objective of the meeting was to share examples of effective and responsible leadership in translating the OMI’s visionary aspirations into practice. Delegates highlighted the need for transparency, fair prices, and an open debate with all actors: from WHO Member States to the private sector, patients and civil society organizations.
The ministerial lunch concluded with the adoption of a joint statement, part of which includes the creation of a multistakeholder platform managed by WHO/Europe, gathering stakeholders around a common table to work on shared solutions. A small group of Member States will work with the Secretariat to flesh out the platform’s scope, aiming to present a draft at the next session of the Standing Committee of the Regional Committee.
In recognition of the fact that 70% of disease outbreaks to which WHO responds take place in fragile, conflict-affected and vulnerable settings, this parallel session provided an opportunity to discuss the question of how health can serve as a stabilizer for peace. Dr Ogerta Manastirliu, Minister of Health of Albania, drew on the experiences of the South-eastern Europe Health Network, underlining that harnessing countries’ specific expertise in different health areas across the Network was vital to building bridges, and promoting stability, peace and prosperity.
Looking ahead, Ms Nora Kronig Romero, Vice-Director General and Head of the International Affairs Division of the Federal Office of Public Health in Switzerland, outlined the process for developing a roadmap for the Global Health for Peace Initiative launched in 2019. During subsequent discussions, there was broad agreement that in order to take the initiative forward, it is essential to engage youth, integrate the health dimension into conflict analysis, train health workers in conflict-sensitive approaches, and focus on building trust.
Opening the session on digital health, the Regional Director highlighted the importance of strengthening the health system response – enhancing digital health literacy so that all patients, regardless of age, can understand and use new digital tools while also having their privacy and human rights protected.
Dr Natasha Azzopardi Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at WHO/Europe, highlighted the funding challenges and staff shortages faced by health systems. Digital health offers an opportunity for health systems to meet the growing needs of populations.
Discussions on the Regional digital health action plan are set to continue on the second day (Tuesday, 13 September).
During a side event for National Counterparts (NCP), the vision for an NCP network as a channel for strengthened regional cooperation with and between WHO Member States took shape. Those attending expressed strong support for the network and selected a core team of volunteers from Bulgaria, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the Secretariat to steward it for the next 12 months, planning the next steps and scope, and determining how best to proceed with further consultations.
Address by WHO Director-General
Address by the Regional Director
Empowerment through Digital Health
Health Systems in Action insights launch
Health Systems in Action insights series
Oslo Medicines Initiative
Global Health for Peace Initiative