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The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the forum through which the World Health Organization (WHO) is governed by its 194 member states. It is the world's highest health policy setting body and is composed of health ministers from member states.
The members of the WHA generally meet every year in May in Geneva at the palace of nations, the location of WHO Headquarters. The main tasks of the WHA are to decide major policy questions, as well as to approve the WHO work programme and budget and elect its Director General.
In addition, seven agencies have observer status at the WHA – the Vatican, the Palestinian Authority, the Order of Malta, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and The Department of Health of the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan, was invited on 28 April 2009 to participate in the WHA 2009 as an observer for the first time since losing its China seat in United Nations to People's Republic of China in 1971. The invitation was extended to "the Department of Health, Chinese Taipei."
The main international policy frameworks adopted through WHA resolutions include:
- International Health Regulations
- International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, adopted in 1981
- Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted in 2003
- Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, adopted in 2010
In addition, the WHA has endorsed through resolutions a number of WHO action plans dealing with different areas to improve health around the world, such as:
- Worldwide eradication of smallpox, first endorsed in 1959, and then declared to have been won in 1980
- Worldwide eradication of polio, first endorsed in 1988, recently re-affirmed in 2011
- Control of human hookworm infection through regular deworming of at-risk school children, endorsed in 2001
- WHO global action plan for workers' health, endorsed in 2007
- Control of harmful use of alcohol, endorsed in 2010
- Enhanced global actions for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, endorsed in 2011
The WHA is also responsible for the endorsement of the WHO Family of International Classifications, a series of internationally standardized medical classifications, including the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).
In her role as global patron of The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, and chair of the Maternal Mortality Campaign, Sarah Brown gave the keynote speech at the World Health Organization's 62nd WHA, alongside United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asking "Where is the M in MCH?’ [maternal and child health]" in an echo of Allan Rosenfield's landmark Lancet article of 1985 – and highlighting that the numbers of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth were still the same 14 years later.
Among other actions, the 65th Assembly endorsed the Rio Political Declaration to address the social determinants of health, intended to spearhead support for all countries to adopt inclusive ‘Health For All’ approaches to health promotion. It also endorsed the first World Immunization Week.
In her address to the 66th WHA in May 2013, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan traced a brief history of revisions to the International Health Regulations following the SARS outbreak in 2002-3, the "first severe new disease of the 21st century." She observed that the two new diseases WHO is dealing with in 2013 are the novel coronavirus (MERS), from the same family as SARS, detected in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, and the first-ever human infections with the H7N9 avian influenza virus reported in China in 2013. She attributed the positive report by the World Health Statistics (May 2013) on dramatic improvement in health in the world's poorest countries from 1993–2013, to the emphasis placed on poverty alleviation by the Millennium Development Goals. She announced the emergence of global action plans for noncommunicable diseases, mental health, and the prevention of avoidable blindness and visual impairment calling for a life-course approach which includes "equity through universal health coverage," preventive strategies and "integrated service delivery."
Dr. Margaret Chan declared at the Assembly that Intellectual Property, or patents on strains of new virus, should not impede nations from protecting their citizens by limiting scientific investigations. Following the 2012 MERS outbreak in Saudi Arabia, Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish raised concerns that scientists who applied for a patent would not allow the MERS-coronavirus to be used for investigations by other scientists and were therefore delaying the development of diagnostic tests. Ten of the 22 people who died and 22 of 44 cases reported were in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia–based microbiologist Ali Mohamed Zaki reported the first known case, a 60-year-old Saudi man who got sick in June, 2012 on ProMed-mail, a public health on-line forum then published more details including the virus’s genetic makeup and closest relatives. The Erasmus Medical Center "tested, sequenced and identified" a sample provided by Ali Mohamed Zaki. Erasmus MC and Dr. Zaki strongly refuted all allegations concerning a presumed lack of willingness to cooperate in research into the new MERS coronavirus, making diagnostic tests and virus specimens freely available to all research institutions around the globe.
The 67th WHA took place in Geneva on 19–24 May 2014. Among the more than 20 resolutions adopted by the Assembly included ones concerning strengthening of national drug management systems to address antimicrobial resistance; implementation of the Minamata Convention to protect human health and the environment from effects of exposure to mercury and mercury compounds; and improving access to essential medicines worldwide. Also endorsed was a global monitoring framework for maternal, infant and child nutrition.
Following the 67th WHA, the WHO's Director-General Dr Margaret Chan was criticized by the Association of Correspondents Accredited to the United Nations (ACANU) for not having spoken directly to the media during the course of the Assembly.
The 68th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) took place in Geneva 18–26 May 2015. The Health Assembly is the supreme decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States. Its main functions are to determine the policies of the Organization, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget. Jagat Prakash Nadda assumed new presidency of WHA. India assumed the presidency after a gap of 19 years.
During the assembly the WHA agreed to the Global Malaria Strategy and Programme Budget for 2016–2017, polio, International Health Regulations, strengthening surgical care, WHO's reform of its emergency and response programme, antimicrobial resistance, immunization gaps, malnutrition, air pollution, and epilepsy. Annual health awards were given by the Director-General of WHO and the President of WHA.
The 69th World Health Assembly took place 23–28 May 2016, and agreed to pursue the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a comprehensive set of foundational steps, prioritizing universal health coverage, working with actors outside the health sector to address the social, economic and environmental root causes of antimicrobial resistance and other human health problems, to continue expanding efforts to address poor maternal and child health and infectious diseases in developing countries, and to focus upon equity within and between countries. Delegates decided to invite the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s (WHO FCTC) Conference of the Parties (COP) to provide information on outcomes of this biennial event to future World Health Assembly meetings.
The 70th World Health Assembly took place 22–31 May 2017.
The 71st World Health Assembly took place 21–26 May 2018.
Taiwan was invited as an observer to the WHA for 8 years between 2008 and 2016. However, since the 71st WHA in 2017, China has continued to block Taiwan's participation in WHA as an observer. United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar have voiced support for Taiwan's inclusion in WHA as an observer.
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