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2023 Marked By Achievements And 'avoidable Suffering': WHO Chief

The past year saw significant milestones and challenges in global public health but also immense and avoidable suffering, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

Reflecting on 2023, which also marked the UN agency’s 75th anniversary, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted key achievements and set out objectives for the coming year.

“In May, I declared an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern. This marked a turning point for the world following three years of crisis, pain, and loss for people everywhere. I am glad to see that life has returned to normal," he said in a video message.

New vaccines

Dr. Tedros also pointed to other achievements, such as the end of the mpox outbreak as a global health emergency and the approval of new vaccines for dengue, meningitis and malaria which threaten millions worldwide, mainly the most vulnerable.

Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Belize achieved malaria-free status, and progress was made in eliminating some tropical diseases in various countries, including sleeping sickness in Ghana; trachoma in Benin, Mali, and Iraq, and lymphatic filariasis in Bangladesh and Lao.

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"The path to eradicating another vaccine-preventable disease – polio – has reached its last mile. Thirty more countries introduced the HPV vaccine, advancing our goal to eliminate cervical cancer," he said.

Climate impacts

2023 also saw increased attention to the health impacts of the climate crisis, he added. Health issues featured prominently on the agenda of the COP28 conference in Dubai, where a global declaration on climate and health was issued, emphasizing the intersection of environmental and public health challenges.

Additionally, in September, Heads of State at the United Nations General Assembly committed to advancing universal health coverage, ending tuberculosis, and protecting the world from future pandemics.

“Each of these achievements, and many more, demonstrated the power of science, solutions and solidarity to protect and promote health,” he emphasized.

‘Immense and avoidable suffering’

Tedros also acknowledged the “immense and avoidable suffering and threats to health” over the past year.

He said the barbaric attacks by Hamas on Israel on 7 October left around 1,300 people dead and over 200 taken hostage, while reports of gender-based violence and mistreatment of hostages were deplorable.

The devastating attack on Gaza that followed has killed more than 20,000 people – mainly women and children – and injured over 53,000, he continued.

No peace, no health

The WHO chief expressed deep concern over the impact on healthcare infrastructure, noting that “as of 22 December, only nine of 36 health facilities in Gaza were partially functional, with only four offering the most basic of services in the north.” He once again called for an immediate ceasefire.

The global landscape was also marked by conflict and insecurity in countries such as Sudan, Ukraine, Ethiopia and Myanmar.

"Without peace, there is no health, and without health, there can be no peace," said Tedros.

He noted that in addition to conflict-related challenges, issues like poverty, lack of access to clean water and hygiene, contributed to the spread of infectious diseases. The resurgence of cholera, with over 40 outbreaks worldwide, raised particular concern.

Looking ahead

Looking to 2024, the WHO chief highlighted the opportunity to address gaps in global pandemic preparedness.

He said Governments, are currently negotiating the first-ever global agreement aimed at enhancing collaboration, cooperation, and equity in responding to pandemics of the future.

“The Pandemic Accord and plans to strengthen the International Health Regulations represent monumental actions by governments to create a safer and healthier world," Tedros affirmed.

The WHO Director-General concluded his message by expressing gratitude to health workers, partners and colleagues, underscoring the shared journey to achieve Health for All.

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