GENEVA, Switzerland — In a race to “save lives, livelihoods and end this pandemic”, the head of the UN heath agency said on Tuesday that it was important to remember COVID-19 was just one of a number of major disease outbreaks facing communities across the world.
In his first regular media briefing of the new year, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told journalists that WHO was also “picking up and analyzing hundreds of potential signals every week”, concerning other life-threatening illnesses.
But he made clear the pandemic remains “a major public health crisis”, while assuring that WHO is “working day and night” to accelerate science, provide solutions on the ground and build global solidarity.
“This is as important for tackling the pandemic as it is for getting essential services back up and running again”, said Tedros.
‘Investment in overall development’
Pointing out that WHO’s work stretches “far beyond emergencies”, the UN official explained that its operations encompass improving “human health in all its aspects from birth to old age”.
He elaborated on the breadth of the agency’s activities – from keeping mothers and babies alive during childbirth to tackling mental health and controlling HIV and other diseases.
“We have learned a lot in the last year; not least that health is an investment in overall development, critical for thriving economies and a key pillar of national security”, said the WHO chief.
Integrated primary healthcare systems are imperative to prevent, screen and treat infectious and noncommunicable diseases.
Citing the pandemic, Tedros said that infectious viruses put those with underlying conditions “at highest risk of dying”, and that countries with high numbers of people with health conditions put “extra stress on the health system”.
He maintained that health cannot be “an afterthought when we have an emergency” and underscored the need to “invest in preparedness and surveillance to stop the next pandemic”.
New vaccine development standard
At the dawn of 2021, scientists and public health experts from inside and outside WHO are continuing to break down the latest data and put forward solutions to “build back greener and stronger health systems”, Tedros said.
“My one hope is that there’s less politicking about health in the year ahead”, he stated.
Pointing out that the scientific community has “set a new standard for vaccine development”, he urged the international community to set a new standard for access.
“People must come first over short-term profits. It’s in countries self-interest to shun vaccine nationalism”, the UN official said.
A shot in the arm
Last week, WHO cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use and yesterday the rollout of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford University, began in the United Kingdom.
With 190 “countries and economies” backing the COVAX international vaccines-for-all initiative, Tedros wants to see to see all manufacturers quickly channel supplies there, to enable rollouts to protect high-risk people globally.
“We owe it morally to health workers everywhere who have been fighting this pandemic around the clock for the best part of a year, to vaccinate them all as soon as possible”, he said.