Viewpoint: My First WHO Executive Board

by Annie Bliss, ADI Communications and Policy Officer

ADI’s Communications and Policy Officer, Annie Bliss, at the WHO Exec Board in Geneva

On 24 January 2019, wrapped up in Winter wear, I touched down on Swiss soil for my first World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board meeting. My first observation: “Wow, Geneva really is a functional and miniature city!” After a smooth bus journey to the WHO building (or as it’s locally known, OMS), I was met by the hustle and bustle of side meetings and coffee runs. ADI’s mission was to ensure that the profile and priority of dementia remained high, with key statements planned under Non-communicable diseases (NCD) and Universal Health Coverage (UHC). I was also aware from discussions with colleagues of the successful advocacy efforts of ADI and its members at the last Executive Board to ensure that dementia was specifically identified in the 13th General Programme of Work.

My colleague, Chris Lynch (ADI’s Deputy CEO and Policy, Communications and Publications Director) described the issue eloquently:

“It is so important that we keep the profile of dementia as high as possible. We speak loudly and we repeat our message at gatherings like the WHO Executive Board. Even though we have the Global action plan on dementia we cannot rest. The unique challenges of dementia mean it needs profile and consideration, especially when it is being discussed under broader areas like Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), Universal health coverage (UHC), Age and Mental Health. It’s our goal and duty to ensure dementia is on the agenda.”

In practical terms, the purpose of the Executive Board meeting is to plan for the WHA (the ‘main’ event) which will take place in Geneva in three months’ time. The enormity of this task was made clear just by looking at the meeting agenda which was packed, to put it lightly! For NGOs like ADI, with limitations on our human resources, frequent changes to the programme makes leveraging oral statements extremely difficult. It proves challenging for NGOs to have representatives there every day, where resources do not necessarily allow changing of flights and hotel reservations. 

Despite these frustrations, the meeting resulted in some positive outcomes for us. As well as attending some useful side meetings, we drew attention to dementia in two key statements: one on NCDs and one on UHC. The Governments of Canada and Poland highlighted dementia in their interventions, strengthening the weight of our messaging. In the areas of particular interest to us, we also saw some promising developments.

Firstly, the outcome document on NCDs requests the WHO to provide technical support to Member States in integrating the prevention and control of NCDs and the promotion of mental health into primary health-care services. It also requests improving NCD surveillance and making adequate financial and human resources available to Member States. Secondly, the draft resolution on UHC  acknowledges the important role of NGOs (among other stakeholders) to the achievement of national objectives on UHC. It emphasises the full continuum of care (promotive, preventive, curative, as well as rehabilitation services and palliative care) and urges Member States to support research and development on medicines and vaccines for non-communicable diseases.

The meeting reinforced to me the importance of engaging with debate, for example within discussions about Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and via the WHO civil society working group on NCDs which ADI will continue to be a part of. We were delighted to hear the Governments of Canada and Poland highlighted dementia in their interventions, which emphasised just how important the support and engagement of our members is. Dementia was indeed on the agenda. 

I would like to extend a warm thank you to all our members for their hard work and continued support. We will be reaching out again soon to assist in preparation for World Health Assembly in May, including the launch of our updated From Plan to Impact report. Watch this space!