The Pacific response to WHO's planned program of work

World leaders at the 68th session of the World Health Organization Regional Committee for the Western Pacific. Photo by: WHO

BRISBANE, Australia — Climate change, affordable health care, and raising the bar for clear and timely communication during emergencies were chief among the regional priorities presented at the 68th session of the World Health Organization Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, held in Brisbane from October 9 to 13.

The meeting provides an opportunity for regional member states to address the WHO’s proposed general program of work for 2019 to 2023, which aligns the direction of WHO with the Sustainable Development Goals. Expected to be endorsed at the 71st World Health Assembly in May 2018, the work plan focuses on outcome and impact. Innovation, partnership, transparency, and improved use of resources are priorities of the new WHO, which places countries and the will of the people firmly at the center of its work.

While the shifting direction was endorsed by member states in Brisbane, there were questions for improved clarity and calls to address health priorities of Pacific island nations within their region.

Climate change needs to be a priority

With Pacific Island nations at the frontline of climate change, many urged WHO to launch climate-related health initiatives.

“We are a country that is impacted by climate change, and we feel it is time this is very much at the forefront of WHO’s agenda,” the delegate for the Solomon Islands explained.

The delegate for Cook Island pressed for climate change to be a priority at the regional and global level, and a standard ongoing agenda at WHO meetings.

In response, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that while climate change is a global problem, there are many disproportionately affected. An announcement is expected in November at COP 23 providing a program of work for climate health initiatives in regions requiring urgent support.

Affordable health care

The calls by WHO to leave no one behind were supported by member states, but Pacific Island countries pressed for details on how WHO would respond to the high cost of access to health care services and medicines in their countries — and how it could provide greater support to those requiring mental health care, disability, ageing, and other high need health support.

"Why is health coverage so difficult and complex?” the delegate for Tuvalu asked, explaining that more than 50 percent of world’s population live in countries where health services and medicine is becoming unaffordable. The delegate called on WHO to come up with mechanism to deliver more accessible and affordable health care systems focusing on the least developed countries.

The delegate for Marshall Islands echoed these concerns, urging WHO and members states to work together to provide solutions to make health care more affordable while the delegate for the Philippines recommended that universal health coverage be the core strategic priority for WHO moving forward.

The role of WHO in facilitating better communication

Communicating health initiatives across government, across sectors, and with private sector partners was an important issue for member states. Delegates pressed WHO leadership to provide clear and concise information and advice.

Singapore in particular urged strong and timely advice and communication from WHO in times of outbreaks, epidemics, and emergencies, saying past emergencies have seen member states respond to rumors rather than facts with decisions unnecessarily impacting trade and cross-border movements.

But member states also urged WHO to play an important role in facilitating collaboration between member states for improved outcomes and sharing of knowledge.

What are the impacts of changing WHO priorities?

The new directions and operational aims of WHO need to be better defined and understood, said delegates for Australia and New Zealand, to ensure member states can clearly communicate the work of WHO to their governments, partners, and other key stakeholders.

But delegates also wanted information on how changing priorities could impact existing work, as well as staff funding. Japan in particular flagged concerns over the potential fallout, while Fiji explained that they were hoping for more insight into how WHO would make the difficult decisions in scaling back programs and allocating resources.

Tedros explained that members states would also need to play an important role in helping WHO to prioritize initiatives. “Prioritization is going to be tough,” he said. “We need your cooperation too.” He urged member states to let their pens go and focus on select goals.  

“If we have many priorities, we don’t have a priority.”

But improved organization spending will also allow for better allocation of resources, with a soon to be released travel guideline the first of a number of corporate initiatives expected to enable better funding to priority health initiatives.

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.