WHO director-general on World Health Day

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By Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

It’s a real pleasure to be here in Washington, DC, on World Health Day. Over the past few days, I’ve had a series of very productive meetings with representatives of the administration, senators, house members and other leaders.

We renewed old friendships and forged new ones. We discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and WHO’s five major priorities for the next five years, including supporting countries to make a paradigm shift towards promoting health and preventing disease, not just treating it; radically reorienting health systems towards primary health care; strengthening global capacities for pandemic preparedness and response; harnessing the power of science, research, innovation, data and digital technologies for health; and continuing to strengthen WHO as the leading and directing authority on global health.

World Health Day marks the day that the Constitution of the World Health Organization came into effect, on the 7 of April 1948. Although our headquarters are in Switzerland, in one way, WHO was born here in the United States.

It was in 1945, during the Conference to establish the United Nations in San Francisco, that the idea of an international health organization was first proposed. And at the International Health Conference in New York City the following year, the Constitution of the World Health Organization was adopted by 51 Members of the UN, including the United States.

For the past 75 years, the United States has been a strong partner in global health. The US played a pivotal role in eradicating smallpox – which remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of global health.

The US has continued to be a leader in global health, through PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as well as its support for the response to malaria, TB, polio and many other diseases.

The US has also been a strong supporter of WHO’s work to respond to health emergencies, including the war in Ukraine. With support from the United States, WHO is working with Ukraine’s ministry of health to keep the country’s health system running, and we’re working with neighbouring countries to support access to care for refugees.

WHO and our partners have so far delivered more than 180 metric tonnes of medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas in Ukraine, and we are preparing to deliver more.

We are outraged that attacks on health care are continuing.

Today, on the 42nd day of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we crossed a grim milestone of more than 100 attacks – as of now, WHO has verified 103 incidents of attacks on health care, with 73 people killed and 51 injured, including health workers and patients.

Attacks on health care are a violation of international humanitarian law. Peace is the only way forward. I again call on the Russian Federation to stop the war.

As US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, described, the United States has LONG been a strong supporter of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States is the largest financial donor to the ACT Accelerator since it began, and the largest donor of vaccines to COVAX, as Xavier outlined.

And we continue to look to the US for its support to end the pandemic globally, and to address the many other challenges to health we face. Doing this is in the interest of the United States itself.

I am painfully aware that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll here in the US. I offer my deep condolences to all Americans who have lost someone they love. And I offer my deep appreciation and respect to every health worker who has put themselves in harm’s way to serve others in the course of the pandemic.

COVID-19 is a powerful demonstration that when health is at risk, everything is at risk. The pandemic has highlighted the intimate links between the health of humans, animals, and THE environment. And yet we are rapidly making the planet on which all life depends uninhabitable – which is why World Health Day 2022’s theme is: Our planet, our health.

The climate crisis is a health crisis. Air pollution kills seven million people every year, and 99 percent of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air, mainly as a result of burning fossil fuels.

Our warming world is facilitating the spread of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, land degradation and water scarcity are displacing people and damaging their health. Systems that produce highly processed, unhealthy foods are driving a wave of obesity, increasing cancer and heart disease, and generating one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.

There are solutions at hand. WHO’s Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19 recommends more than 80 concrete actions governments can take in six policy areas, with dividends for the health of our planet and the health of humans.

The health sector must lead by example, and I applaud the US, under the leadership of Admiral Rachel Levine for its commitment to decarbonizing its health system, as part of WHO’s COP26 health programme.

At WHO, we have also committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. This World Health Day, as the world recovers and rebuilds from the pandemic, we have a choice.

We can go back to the way things were, or we can change course.

We can create societies, economies and products that nurture health and well-being, and stop subsidising those that destroy it.

Because we cannot afford to pump carbon into the atmosphere at the same rate and still breathe clean air. We must choose.

We cannot afford the same patterns of consumption and expect less diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. We must choose.

We cannot afford ever-deepening inequalities, and expect continued prosperity. We must choose.

And so this World Health Day, we call on all governments to choose our planet, our health. Our planet, our health.

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