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World Health Assembly Swiss minister condemns attacks on health facilities

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset, left, praised outgoing WHO Director General Margaret Chan for her 'energy' in office.

(Keystone)

Attacks against health centres and health workers in conflict zones is totally unacceptable and ‘contrary to our system of values’, declared Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset at the opening of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva on Monday. 

“We must do our utmost to allow organisations on the ground to accomplish their health missions,” Berset told delegates at the 70th World Health Assembly in Geneva, referring to Doctors without Borders (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

According to the WHO, there were 302 attacks against health facilities and staff in 2016 across 20 countries. In addition, there were some 90 similar attacks in the first three months of 2017, which killed at least 80 people. 

In his speech, Berset also urged countries to put the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the centre of health policy and to guarantee health coverage for all, including migrants. 

Berset also praised the energy of outgoing WHO chief Margaret Chan, who he said had strengthened the organization during her ten-year tenure. 

Although she earned a standing ovation from assembly delegates on Monday, reports indicate that many people are seeking further reform at the WHO after Chan’s departure. Her time at the helm of the organisation has been blighted by a flawed response to the Ebola outbreak in three West African countries that killed more than 11,000 people. 

But there are other problems her replacement will have to tackle. A report published by APexternal link on Monday revealed that WHO currently spends $200 million a year on travel - more than it does to fight some of the biggest problems in public health including AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria.

Chan’s replacement 

On Tuesday, the WHO's governing body made up of 194 member states will choose its next leader from three candidates. For the first time, the organisation’s head will be chosen by popular vote instead of pre-selected by its executive board, as in past years. British physician David Nabarro, former Ethiopian health minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Sania Nishtar, a Pakistani expert in non-communicable diseases, are the three finalists competing for the top WHO job. 

On Monday, an Ethiopian demonstrator disturbed the WHA meeting, urging the 4,000 delegates not to elect Tedros. Outside, over 100 Ethiopian protestors shouted and waved banners declaring “Tedros lied and people died”. He is accused of covering up three cholera epidemics during his time as health minister. He has denied the accusations and several African ambassadors have called the claims “defamatory”. 

Tuesday’s closed-door vote is the highlight event of the 10-day WHA, which will also lay out strategies on issues like the fight against polio, preparedness for pandemic flu, and antimicrobial resistance.

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