The World Health Organization kicked off its global high-level conference on Health and Climate Change this week in Geneva. What makes this conference particularly significant is the fact that while the WHO has been working on this agenda for the past 20 years, this is the first time it has led a conference with so many decision-makers involved.
The compelling state of scientific evidence – as documented in a separate chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report – has lent a certain urgency to the climate change agenda in the health community. The audience for this conference included around 300 senior level participants from various WHO member countries, mostly from the health sector, including a number of ministers.
world health organization
I’m a big believer in setting highly ambitious targets in order to galvanize communities and countries to take action on serious issues. When I was at the World Health Organization in 2003, we set a target called “3 x 5” – committing to treat 3 million people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world by 2005.
At the time, just a few hundred thousand people in the developing world had access to the life-saving treatment. When we announced the target, the global health community was still arguing about whether HIV treatment in poor countries was possible. Some called it an impossible dream that would give people false hope.
I responded that no one ever said treating 3 million people would be easy. But we needed a measurable and time-limited target to change fundamentally the way we thought about the challenges of HIV in developing countries. The target helped change the way we worked – we had fewer arguments about if we should do it, and focused on how to get it done.
I had been warned—I found it hard to believe—that WHO ministerial meetings can be rather dull affairs of little consequence. Ministers typically take it in turn to read their prepared speeches; their fellow ministers appear to be listening attentively through their headsets but some, it seems, have been known to zap through the simultaneous translation channels in search of lighter entertainment. Speeches aren’t played over the loudspeakers for fear of waking jetlagged ministers from their afternoon naps. WHO is a very considerate organization: it likes to make sure that while on its premises visitors reach “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Well I’m happy to report that last week’s ministerial meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC)—held in Geneva on February 18-19, jointly organized by WHO and the World Bank, and attended by delegates from all over the world (see map)—didn’t fit the stereotype.
The scientific evidence is overwhelming. As Robert Beaglehole and colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out years ago, tobacco is the only consumer product that eventually kills half of its regular users if they follow its manufacturers’ recommendations.
Given this dire reality, it is clear that Africa is now at a crossroads. On one hand, the countries in this region have become an attractive and under-tapped market as tougher regulations, high taxes, and greater consumer awareness of the dangers of smoking in developed countries are “closing the door” to tobacco imports and leading to significant drops in consumption. And on the other hand, cigarettes are becoming increasingly affordable as incomes rise in several African countries due to the rapid economic growth of recent years. Indeed, African countries are experiencing the highest increase in the rate of tobacco use amongst developing countries--the number of smokers in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase 148 percent by 2030, to 208 million smokers or one-fifth of the total population.