After holding the most important annual meeting online during the pandemic for 2 consecutive years, WHO/Europe convened its 72nd Regional Committee (RC72) on 12–14 September 2022 in Israel. All 53 Member States from across Europe and Central Asia are invited along with various health partners. In total, about 500 participants came to Tel Aviv for RC72, while another 200 participated online. The consequences were many.
Delegates endorsed blueprints to better target and ultimately end a number of challenging diseases, including cervical cancer, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and viral hepatitis.
To advance the ambition of leaving no one behind, countries have implemented the first European framework to achieve the highest standards of health for the estimated 135 million people with disabilities in the WHO European Region.
Delegates approved a framework to tackle alcohol-related harm, where 2,500 people die every day from alcohol-related illnesses in the region – the highest burden in the world.
At the very least, Member States have officially approved action plans for two major WHO/EU initiatives – Digital Health and Behavioral and Cultural Insights (BCI) – both opening up the potential to transform how health policies and programs are designed, implemented and evaluated.
“Despite the challenges and impacts of the pandemic, we have been spending a long time on all these issues and plans,” said Dr. Hans-Henry P. Cluj, WHO Regional Director for Europe said.
“The frameworks and action plans discussed and approved at RC72 are ambitious, visionary, but practical. They provide our member states with clear roadmaps to well-defined milestones that will lead to better health for all. For these plans to succeed, however, we need health leadership, health resources and – crucially – political will.
Another alarm was sounded through the impressive regional report “The Health and Care Workforce in Europe: Time to Act”. With 40% of doctors nearing retirement age, the report warns of a long-term lack of investment in health workers in terms of pay and career advancement opportunities, and large numbers of health providers at risk of severe burnout from the nearly 3-year pandemic. Countries should develop strategies and take action to address potential health risks.
“The pandemic and concurrent emergencies have threatened many countries’ ability to maintain essential services, such as childhood vaccinations and cancer screenings,” Dr. Kluge said.
As Covid-19, simian disease and polio have shown us, “we must accept that escalating and often overlapping crises are the new normal. Therefore, we need a two-pronged approach to health: while we prepare for emergencies, we must invest in regular, everyday, essential health programs and services. The latter cannot be sacrificed for the former.
Although the reflection on the region’s health challenges was included in the 3 days of RC72, the meeting ended on a positive note after countries adopted an intensified cooperation mechanism between WHO/Europe and Member States.
In endorsing the strategy, WHO/Europe and WHO Offices praised the role they played in supporting them during the outbreak, working with the health system in Ukraine during the 7-month war and providing countries with technical expertise on action plans. and frameworks to address both communicable and non-communicable diseases.
“It was the first Regional Committee I met in person since becoming Regional Director in early 2020, just as Covid-19 began its brutal journey,” said Dr. Kluge.
“WHO/Europe thanks Israel for hosting RC72 so beautifully. We congratulate everyone on Israel’s achievements in controlling Covid-19, its commitment to ensure the inclusion of vulnerable populations such as the LGBTQI+ community in universal health coverage, and its commitment to digital health. President Herzog and Health Minister Horowitz announced at RC72 a new international digital health center, which WHO/Europe is proud to collaborate with.
Dr. Kluge concluded, “For all of us at WHO/Europe, RC72 has been a real boost – it motivates and inspires us to do more to improve the health and well-being of nearly 1 billion people in Europe and Central Asia.