World Health Assembly opens annual meeting in Geneva

The health of people across the globe is increasingly being imperiled by behaviours such as smoking, poor hygiene and the consumption of fatty foods, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said today.“The world is living dangerously either because it has little choice, or because it is making wrong choices about consumption or activity,” Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland told delegates assembled in Geneva for the weeklong meeting of WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly.In the poorest countries and communities, she said, diseases were often caused by poor nutrition, unsafe sex, unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene, iron deficiency and indoor smoke from solid fuels. At the other end of the risk spectrum, people in rich countries faced high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are closely related to excessive consumption of fatty, sugary and salty foods. Obesity is a serious health risk, while the consequences of tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption are deadly, she warned.While those factors dominated wealthier countries, their prevalence in developing communities was increasing, leaving poorer countries to cope with the double burden of infectious and non-communicable diseases, Dr. Brundtland said.At the same time, the WHO chief hailed progress in moving health to the forefront of the world agenda, and welcomed the real increase in funding earmarked for public health worldwide. She cited successes in the areas of fighting polio, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as well as increases in vaccination campaigns, progress on a tobacco control treaty, and greater emphasis on mental illness as a major cause of suffering and disability.Dr. Brundtland cautioned that these encouraging developments were just a start. “We need continued reduction in prices of medicines and other commodities, and expansion of quality services to the millions in need,” she said. “We must scale up our effort even if the struggle seems beset with political and institutional minefields.”The World Health Assembly, which is made up of delegates from WHO’s 191 Member States, sets the agency’s policy and direction. Its current fifty-fifth annual meeting will debate and make policy decisions on investing in health for economic development, the final strategy for the eradication of polio and WHO’s contribution to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

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