World Health Assembly 2014 — 3 things to look out for in Geneva

A view of the 66th World Health Assembly. This year’s WHA is likely to center on maternal and child health. Photo by: Pan American Health Organization / CC BY-ND

This week, the World Health Assembly in Geneva brings with it a packed agenda and a whole host of questions around a number of key issues for global health policy makers.

In a critical period for the crafting of the post-2015 framework, this WHA will provide important signposts as to the likely focus and priorities ahead of September’s U.N. General Assembly in New York. A key focus of these discussions is likely to center on maternal and child health, especially given the lack of progress made on the health Millennium Development Goals.

As we head toward an exciting week of discussion and debate, there are three key issues to watch out for:

1. Charting a course for reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health.

Of all the issues up for discussion during the WHA, reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health looks set to be among the top priorities. Globally, out of nearly three million babies that die in the first month of life, 2.6 million of these are stillborn and approximately 287,000 women die every year due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

The WHA will vote this week on a resolution to adopt the World Health Organization’s new Every Newborn Action Plan. ENAP has been developed in the framework of WHO’s Every Mother, Every Child initiative as a roadmap to prevent these deaths, aiming to set out a clear vision to improve maternal and newborn health by 2035. It will seek to do so through cost-effective investments in care at birth, improving health systems and harnessing the potential of research and development investment to deliver new, effective and accessible medical interventions for pregnant women and newborns.

Improved newborn health and survival is closely linked to the continuum of care between sexual, reproductive, maternal and child health and to the health of mothers — many of them young and adolescent women. Responding holistically to pregnancy in adolescence, supporting women to prevent unintended pregnancies, as well as empowering girls and young women to take control of their own sexual health, will be crucial components of a successful action plan. Similarly, research on innovative health solutions to improve newborn and maternal health is needed.

Given that the WHA will play host to numerous debates and side events on ENAP, this week represents an important opportunity for civil society to have a final input on its direction.

2. A key role for SRHR in the post-2015 agenda.

As reported by WHO, progress on achieving the health-related MDGs has been mixed. Despite a significant reduction in child and maternal mortality in the past two decades, we are unlikely to reach the 2015 targets for either of these as set out in the MDGs — especially under MDG 5(b) on universal access to reproductive health.

Meanwhile, the fight against HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, also remains a significant challenge. Whereas initiatives such as the Global Fund and GAVI have done much to accelerate a rollout of much-needed diagnostic, preventive and treatment tools, we are far away from the MDG target on universal access to treatment for HIV and AIDS.

The failure to reach the MDG targets will be important to the discussions at the WHA on the role of health post-2015 — in particular where improvements can be made and where policy should be focusing. The Commission on Population and Development, the High-level Task Force on the ICPD and others are clear about what needs to be done to ensure an effective post-2015 global agenda: sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender and women empowerment, and the rights and empowerment of young people and adolescents must be at the center of sustainable development.

In practical terms, this means including universal access to SRHR as a standalone target under the health goal. It also means including the mainstreaming of SRHR, gender and women empowerment across the new framework. Indeed, SRHR underpins women’s and youth empowerment, health, wellbeing, and socio-economic development. The WHA debate on post-2015 therefore represents a timely opportunity for all those engaged in the process to forcefully remind international leaders of this message and urge concerted action.

3. The role of global health R&D.

Despite groundbreaking advances in new tools for treatment, prevention and diagnostics in recent years, R&D for global health remains a relatively peripheral issue on the WHA agenda. This is striking when you consider the potential impact that innovation can have on maternal and child health, and the broader aims of health in the post-2015 framework.

In the past month alone, we have seen a new breakthrough in the fight against TB that could simplify significantly the treatment of the disease in lower- and middle-income countries. Other innovations in the field of poverty-related and neglected tropical diseases — including vaccines for malaria — are in the development pipeline.

Despite the fact that increased high-level political support for — and investment in — global health R&D could accelerate the development innovations that are already underway in the field of maternal health and family planning — including microbicides, new and more effective methods of contraception, and tools to prevent maternal deaths at birth — this potential contribution is not reflected in the WHA’s agenda.

However, an interesting and relevant side event — organized by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, IAVI, the Global Health Technology Coalition and others — is set to tackle this very issue, asking how research and innovation can be harnessed to achieve health and sustainable development for all.

With progress lacking on so many of the health MDG targets and indicators, we are frankly not in a position to pass up on the potential contribution of innovative R&D to global health goals. We’ll therefore be watching these issues with interest and firmly believe that they are the kinds of debates that need to be at the core of the WHA and of the post-2015 framework.

I, for one, hope that when we come around to talking about the WHA this time next year that the conversation will have advanced and that global health R&D will be recognized as central to achieving the world’s sustainable development objectives.

Devex is in Geneva to cover the 67th World Health Assembly. Check back over the coming weeks for video interviews and more coverage from Switzerland. Join the Devex community and gain access to more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

See more:

Will NCDs gain traction at the World Health Assembly?

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Cécile Vernant

    Cécile Vernant is head of EU advocacy for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, an international development and advocacy organization focused on achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Representing DSW in Brussels, Cécile focuses on global health, SRHR, and youth and women empowerment. Prior to joining DSW, she worked in EU public affairs as well as corporate marketing and crisis communication in her native France and the United States.