The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a document listing 13 most pressing global health challenges that need to be tackled in the next ten years.
At the core of issues contained in the document, WHO argues that governments are failing to fund healthcare systems and consequently, many people are exposed to avoidable risks such as poverty, national economic downturn, and even death.
The document which was developed by public health and policy experts around the world working in collaboration with the WHO was signed by the Director-General of the global health agency, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus according to a press release issued on the agency’s website.
The 13 global health challenges as listed by the WHO include:
Making Healthcare Accessible to Everyone
“Persistent and growing” socioeconomic gaps that result in a major discrepancy in the quality of people’s health is also an urgent challenge. There is not only an 18-year difference in life expectancy between rich and poor countries but also a marked gap within countries and even within cities, the WHO notes.
The WHO is working with its partners to improve child and maternal care, nutrition, gender equality, mental health, and access to adequate water and sanitation. The WHO has called on countries to allocate 1% more of their gross domestic product to primary healthcare, to give more people access to the quality essential services they need.
Expanding Access to Medicines and Vaccines
About one-third of the world’s people lack access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostic tools, and other essential health products. Low access to quality health products threatens health and lives and contributes to drug resistance.
The WHO is working with countries to expand access to medicines, fight substandard and falsified medical products, enhance the capacity of low-income countries to assure the quality of medical products throughout the supply chain, and improve access to diagnosis and treatment for non-communicable diseases, including diabetes.
Fighting Infectious Diseases
Infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, and sexually transmitted infections will take the lives of an estimated four million people in 2020, most of them poor.
Meanwhile, vaccine-preventable diseases continue to kill, including measles, which took 140,000 lives in 2019. Polio is also once again a concern, with 156 cases of wild poliovirus last year, the most since 2014. There’s an urgent need for greater political will and increased funding for essential health services and strengthening routine immunisation, the WHO says.
Preparing for Epidemics
A pandemic of a new, highly infectious, airborne virus — most likely a strain of influenza — to which most people lack immunity is inevitable, according to the WHO. And vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever are spreading as mosquito populations move into new areas, fanned by climate change, the WHO says. “Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly and far more damaging economically and socially. A pandemic could bring economies and nations to their knees,” Ghebreyesus said.
The WHO is working to advise countries on evidence-based investments to strengthen health systems and infrastructure to keep populations safe when health emergencies strike.
Making Healthy Food More Accessible
Lack of food, unsafe food, and unhealthy diets are to blame for nearly one third of the global disease burden. The WHO is working with countries to develop evidence-based public policies, investments, and private sector reforms to reshape food systems, and provide healthy and sustainable diets. Last year, the food industry committed to eliminating trans-fat by 2023, but more is needed.
The WHO also cites mounting health risks of electronic cigarettes. The agency is working with countries to build political commitment and capacity to strengthen implementation of evidence-based tobacco-control policies.
Investing in Healthcare Workers
Another challenge is the global shortage of healthcare workers. The world will need 18 million more healthcare workers by 2030, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, including nine million nurses and midwives. To prompt action and encourage investment in education, skills, and jobs, the World Health Assembly has designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. The WHO and its partners will issue a comprehensive State of the World’s Nursing report on World Health Day in April and is working with countries to stimulate new investment to train health workers and pay them decent salaries.
Promoting Adolescent Safety
More than one million adolescents aged 10 to 19 years die every year. The chief causes are road accidents, HIV, suicide, lower respiratory infections, and interpersonal violence. Harmful use of alcohol, tobacco and drug use, lack of physical activity, unprotected sex, and previous exposure to child maltreatment all increase the risks for these causes of death.
In 2020, the WHO will issue new guidance for policymakers, health practitioners, and educators designed to promote adolescents’ mental health and prevent the use of drugs, alcohol, self-harm, and interpersonal violence as well as provide young people with information on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, contraception, and care during pregnancy and childbirth.
Strengthening Trust between Health Systems and Public
Public health is compromised by the uncontrolled dissemination of misinformation in social media, as well as through an erosion of trust in public institutions. The anti-vaccination movement has been a significant factor in the rise of deaths in preventable diseases, the WHO says.
The WHO is working with countries to strengthen primary healthcare so people can access effective and affordable services easily from people they know and trust in their own communities. The agency is working with popular social media platforms to ensure their users receive reliable information about vaccines and other health issues.
Harnessing New Technologies
New technologies such as genome editing and artificial intelligence are revolutionising the ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat many diseases, but raise new questions and challenges for monitoring and regulation. In 2019, the WHO set up new advisory committees for human genome editing and digital health, bringing together the world’s leading experts to review evidence and provide guidance. The WHO is also working to help countries plan, adopt, and benefit from new tools that provide clinical and public health solutions, while supporting better regulation of their development and use.
Preventing Antimicrobial Resistance
The rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a persistent and urgent challenge that threatens to send modern medicine back decades to the pre-antibiotic era. The WHO is working with national and international authorities in the environment, agriculture, and animal sectors to reduce the threat of AMR by addressing its root causes, while advocating for research and development into new antibiotics.
Ensuring Health Systems are Clean and Sterile
About one in four health facilities globally lack basic water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services that are critical to a functioning health system. The lack of these basics in health facilities leads to poor-quality care and an increased chance of infection for patients and health workers. The WHO and its partners are working with 35 low- and middle-income countries to improve WASH services in their health facilities. The global goal is for all countries to have included WASH services in plans, budgets, and implementation efforts by 2023 and by 2030 all healthcare facilities globally should have basic WASH services.
“With the deadline for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals quickly approaching, the United Nations General Assembly has underscored that the next 10 years must be the ‘decade of action,’” Tedros said.
“This means advocating for national funding to address gaps in health systems and health infrastructure, as well as providing support to the most vulnerable countries. Investing now will save lives — and money — later. The cost of doing nothing is one we cannot afford,” he said.
“Governments, communities, and international agencies must work together to achieve these critical goals. There are no shortcuts to a healthier world. 2030 is fast approaching, and we must hold our leaders accountable for their commitments,” Tedros added.
Delivering Healthcare to Nations in Crisis
In 2019 most disease outbreaks requiring the highest level of WHO response occurred in countries with protracted conflict. We also saw the continuation of a disturbing trend in which health workers and facilities are targeted. WHO recorded 978 attacks on health care in 11 countries last year, with 193 deaths. At the same time, conflict is forcing record numbers of people out of their own homes, leaving tens of millions of people with little access to health care, sometimes for years.
Last year WHO responded to 58 emergencies in 50 countries in various ways: deploying mobile medical teams, improving disease detection and warning systems, conducting vaccination campaigns, distributing medicines and training of health workers. Aside health, the UN agency ultimately feels the need for political solutions to resolve protracted conflicts, end the neglect of the weakest health systems, while protecting health care workers and facilities from attacks.
Focusing on Health in the Climate Debate
The climate crisis is a health crisis. Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people every year while climate change causes more extreme weather events, exacerbates malnutrition and fuels the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria. The same emissions that cause global warming are responsible for more than one-quarter of deaths from heart attack, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Leaders in both the public and private sectors must work together to clean up our air and mitigate the health impacts of climate change. In 2019, over 80 cities in more than 50 countries committed to WHO’s air quality guidelines, agreeing to align their air pollution and climate policies. This year, WHO will work towards developing a set of policy options for governments to prevent or reduce the health risks of air pollution.
By Chigbu Nwaobia