World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the audience during the 67th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Violaine Martin / WHO

Big decisions were made at last week’s World Health Assembly. But now that the annual event is over, which issues should the aid community keep an eye on in the months to come?

Health experts and prominent health advocates lobbied hard at the weeklong event, and many of their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. World Health Organization member states approved the first-ever global action plan on newborn health, and they also passed a resolution that is expected to boost financing for health research and development.

But there’s more. Here are some of the event’s highlights:

1) First global plan to end preventable newborn deaths

Global health advocates worked for more than a year on a so-called “Every Newborn” action plan to reduce the number of deaths among newborns, which is close to 3 million per year. After much lobbying — including from Melinda Gates — the assembly adopted a plan, setting the stage for governments and their partners to work hand in hand on ending preventable newborn deaths by 2035.

2) A pooled fund for R&D

Research and development helps drive global health innovation, and yet funding for this purpose is often limited. The assembly approved a resolution that allows WHO to establish a pooled fund for R&D to target diseases that largely affect developing countries but are often neglected, such as dengue and rabies.

3) Improved access to essential medicines

As calls for universal health coverage increase, one important factor is that countries have access to essential and affordable medicines. The assembly approved a resolution on this topic, but organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres noted it could have gotten further by, for instance, including medicine for viral hepatitis and noncommunicable diseases in its prequalification program.

4) A new global disability action plan

Efforts to include people with disability in development efforts have been gaining traction as the international community works on a new global development framework. Now, in what many advocates call as a “historic move,” the assembly adopted a global action plan that will cover the period 2014-2021 and has three objectives: remove barriers for people with disabilities in accessing health services and programs, strengthen and extend "rehabilitation, habilitation, assistive technology, assistance and support services" for them, and improve data collection and research on disability.

5) New indicators on NCD progress

Noncommunicable diseases have been on the rise around the world; more than 36 million deaths each year are now caused by cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. Last year, the assembly adopted a global action plan on NCDs, and last week, it approved nine indicators that will help measure progress against that plan.

6) End childhood obesity

Children are "getting fatter,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. In Africa alone, there were about 10 million overweight children in 2012, according to estimates. So Chan has established a high-level commission that will look into specific interventions and produce a report next year.

"What I expect from the Commission is a state-of-the-art consensus report on which specific interventions, and which combinations, are likely to be most effective in different contexts around the world," she said.

7) A new strategy for TB

The aid community is on a big push to reverse tuberculosis incidence by 2015. With an eye on the rise of multidrug-resistant TB, WHO member states last week adopted a new resolution aimed at reducing TB deaths by 95 percent and cutting new cases by 90 percent by 2035. The resolution also puts an emphasis on migrant workers, who are at high risk but tend to have poor access to TB services.

8) Protection of health care workers

Just recently, international medical organization MSF suspended work and closed some of its facilities in the conflict-torn nation of Syria. The reason? Increased attacks on its staff members. Health providers have been subject to increasing attacks in recent years, a topic of debate at  one of WHA’s technical briefings last week that addressed the need for a strategy to limit the dangers health care workers experience on the ground.

9) A changing poverty map

Countries that have graduated or are graduating to middle-income status tend to be seen by foreign donors as less of a priority. But Chan, in her opening speech, reminded delegates that 70 percent of the world's poor continue to live in these emerging economies. Chan voiced concern about the health implications for countries that advance in the World Bank’s income status classification, as “they also graduate from eligibility for support from the Global Fund and GAVI, and for concessional prices for medicines.”

She argued: “Will economic growth be accompanied by a proportionate increase in domestic budgets for health? Will countries put policies in place to ensure that benefits are fairly shared? If not, the world will see a growing number of rich countries full of poor people.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.