Opinion: WHO executive board meetings must be driven by inclusion and collaboration

The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Thorkild Tylleskar / CC BY-SA

The World Health Organization estimates that tens of millions of people will die each year from chronic, noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Such a statistic demands global action, but if you had watched coverage of last fall's United Nations General Assembly, you might have thought that all that happened was some fiery speeches.

“Leaders at this month's WHO meeting should follow the path of inclusion if they are serious about tackling global health challenges, instead of playing the blame game.”

What you might not know is that many governments, including the United States, were quietly working together on declarations to set priorities in the fight against these diseases. The final declarations enjoyed consensus from all countries, paving the way for this week’s WHO executive board meeting, where governments will further discuss these and set the agenda for the year.

At the forefront of this discussion? The importance of working together with all stakeholders, including the private sector, to reduce and more effectively treat NCDs. When the WHO board meets, it would be wise to heed the lessons about what can be accomplished when a collaborative approach is pursued.

Global institutions working with private stakeholders have launched initiatives that have had massive positive impacts on global health. Take, for instance, the WHO-led efforts to eradicate polio that helped launch a strong international public-private partnership, known as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, whose actions have led to a 99.9 percent decrease in global incidences of polio.

Access Accelerated, a multistakeholder group including partners such as the World Bank and World Heart Federation, was created to foster greater prevention and treatment of chronic NCDs through private sector collaboration with the aim to improve knowledge sharing and identify gaps in access and health care. Health professionals know that a collaborative approach is the best way to make progress, with a recent survey showing 93 percent of them believe cross-sector partnerships between government, NGOs, and the private sector are critical to effectively fighting emerging health concerns.

Unfortunately, in other instances, WHO's approach proved less than ideal. Last January, the executive board focused on improving access to medicines, but that debate was largely hijacked by narrow interest groups. Those groups sought, incorrectly, to portray intellectual property rights — an essential incentive to spur private sector research and development into new treatments and cures — as a barrier to medicine access.

The key role of the private sector in driving cutting-edge medical innovation was seldom acknowledged. By pursuing a biased and noninclusive approach, WHO missed a chance to make progress in tackling the real barriers to access, such as weak health care infrastructure, taxes and tariffs, and the need for overall greater health care financing.

Leaders at this month's WHO meeting should follow the path of inclusion if they are serious about tackling global health challenges, instead of playing the blame game. As noted by Bill Gates during last year's general assembly, “the private sector has the skills to play a key role in this R&D [research and development] effort, including pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies, which know how to translate scientific understanding into scalable, life-saving products.”

Institutions such as WHO have succeeded in part thanks to their openness to partnerships with a wide range of private- and public-sector stakeholders to improve global health outcomes. Unfortunately, in recent years, such institutions have moved away from these successful partnerships in favor of unproven and less effective policies pushed by a small group of special interests.

The upcoming meeting in January offers WHO an opportunity to correct course and follow the consensus-based approach that the general assembly so aptly demonstrated last year.

World leaders have the opportunity to build upon existing momentum by embracing collaboration with all stakeholders. It is time they choose a more inclusive approach and make strides towards a healthier future.

About the author

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    Kenneth Thorpe

    Kenneth E. Thorpe, Ph.D., is the Robert W. Woodruff professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy & Management, at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University, and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, an international coalition of over 80 groups focused on highlighting the key role that chronic disease plays in the growth in healthcare spending, and the high rates of morbidity and mortality.