“Dramatic Progress” in Global Health, but Virus Threat Lurks

Delegates representing 194 nations meet for a session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
Delegates representing 194 nations meet for a session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
May 20, 2013

Representatives from more than 190 nations convened for the World Health Assembly May 20 with a record of achievement and a challenge for the future.

World Health Statistics 2013, released by the World Health Organization May 15, shows that the global community has made “dramatic progress” in improving health in the least developed nations.

But those gains are not reasons for complacency. Speaking May 20, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told the assembly that “ensuring health’s place in the next generation of global development goals” is the challenge that lies ahead.

Representing all the nations of the Americas in her remarks, Sebelius said the United States and its neighbors may have different priorities in ensuring broad access to health care, but all work to the same ends. Providing universal health coverage for all citizens is a goal important to many nations.

“Advancing the health of our nations is a fundamental commitment we make to all our people,” Sebelius said. “As President Obama recently reminded us, access to health care is ‘not some earned privilege — it is a right.'”

The findings of World Health Statistics 2013 indicate nations are making progress in narrowing the disparity between wealthy and least advantaged nations on key markers for overall health.

Data on the last two decades show significant growth in the key health indicator of child survival. While more than 170 deaths occurred per 100,00 births in 1990, by 2011 the fatality rate for infants had declined to 107 deaths per 100,000 births, the report found.

Surveying health data from 194 countries, the statistics also show meaningful declines in maternal deaths and in tuberculosis deaths. Still, the report finds that continued diligence is required to achieve greater access to health care, medicines and vaccinations.

MONITORING H7N9 FLU STRAIN

As those positive developments are considered at the meeting, the potential for an Asian disease outbreak to escalate into a pandemic is a looming concern for many.

H7N9 is a strain of avian influenza that has appeared in humans for the first time and taken 36 lives since early March, when it was first spotted. How and where those afflicted were exposed to the virus is still being investigated. The virus does not yet appear to be transmitted easily between humans. But if the virus mutates to develop that characteristic, there is a risk that pandemic influenza could surge out of China and circle the globe with the speed of a jetliner.

Though that health threat hangs over the annual WHA meeting in Geneva, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan reminded the delegates in an opening session of the progress made by the global health community in confronting novel viruses and pandemic preparedness.

A previously unknown coronavirus swept out of Asia 10 years ago, spreading rapidly to almost 8,500 people and taking more than 800 lives. After than scare was contained, health officials everywhere recognized that they had to work together and freely exchange information and laboratory findings when confronted with a fast-moving, dangerous pathogen.

In her May 20 remarks, Dr. Chan thanked China for communicating a “wealth of information” about H7N9 in the two months since its appearance.

Sebelius leads the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly, which runs to May 28. She will speak at other conference events focusing on violence against women, noncommunicable diseases and medical education, according to her office.