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HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell: Plenary Remarks at World Health Assembly
May 23, 2016

HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell

World Health Assembly Plenary RemarksSecretary Sylvia M. Burwell


Geneva, Switzerland

May 23, 2016

“For new infectious disease outbreaks, as well as old adversaries of cancer, tuberculosis, gender-based violence or poverty, an effective, efficient and trusted World Health Organization is more important than ever.”



Mr. Chairman, Director-General Margaret Chan, fellow health ministers, distinguished leaders,

Each year, we come to Geneva to reaffirm our commitment to improving world health. It is a commitment we make to the people we serve back home, and indeed, to each other.  As our nations become more interconnected, the health challenges we face are increasingly shared by us all.

Last year, we worked together to beat back Ebola and examine how the world can be better prepared to face infectious disease threats; this year, many of us have been confronted by a new danger from an old enemy—the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Cases are widespread throughout the Americas, threatening families at what ought to be their most joyful time: welcoming a new life.

Yellow fever has also made a menacing re-appearance. Overcoming these challenges should be a high priority for us all, and with collaboration and diligence, I am confident that we can protect our global community.

That diligence and collaboration are needed to attain the ambitious goals of the Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030.

As new battles arise, we must fight them alongside those that have been with us for years.

Agenda 2030 renews our commitment to past goals, like ending the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; addressing maternal and child health; and continuing to address the health needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities. And it commits us to building health systems that are resilient enough to prevent and deal with outbreaks and emergencies, as well as more routine infectious and non-communicable diseases.

Data will be critical to realizing these goals, and efforts like the Health Data Collaborative will set us on that path. We can better understand why some groups are falling behind—we can address the disparities that persist and how we can better support those communities.

The Agenda 2030 also recognizes the need for integrated strategies. This year, we will discuss action plans for violence and air pollution; we will endorse a new health workforce strategy; we will discuss the urgent need to combat antimicrobial resistance; and we will commit to Joint External Evaluations of International Health Regulations.

These are complex issues, and their scope goes well beyond the work of Health Ministries.

For new infectious disease outbreaks, as well as old adversaries of cancer, tuberculosis, gender-based violence or poverty, an effective, efficient and trusted World Health Organization is more important than ever.

As we meet, discuss, debate and collaborate, we must keep this overarching vision in mind; we must find reforms that will both improve our capacity for emergency response and strengthen the transparency and efficiency of the WHO. This is the single most important issue for us to address this week.

Another priority must be the approval of the Framework for Engagement with Non-State Actors, to engage non-government and private sector leaders in global health.

Dr. Chan has been a bold reformer and a tireless advocate for global health and WHO. Her frankness and commitment to results have taken us far, and with her, we’ve made great progress despite complex and difficult disease outbreaks during her tenure.

I want to thank her for her work, but the best tribute to her time as our Director-General is to work to push further the reform she has helped pioneer.

This is my last World Health Assembly as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but I have been deeply honored to be a part of this remarkable event. Defending the health of our people and our nations is our core duty. I am grateful to work with you all and I look forward to the progress we will make together.

Thank you.