For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, health ministers and high-level delegates of the 53 Member States of the WHO European Region, as well as representatives of partner organizations and civil society, gathered in September in Tel Aviv for the 72nd session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe (RC72).
It was an opportunity to reflect on progress and to align on the next steps needed to implement the WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025, with a particular focus on advancing health and well-being at the country level. The RC72 sought and reached a consensus on key actions in several priority health areas, including those of particular interest for EPHA and its members, like access to affordable medicines, alcohol use, healthcare workforce, childhood obesity, the economy of wellbeing, or (long) COVID pandemic.
Towards healthier healthy environments
Following the launch of the WHO Europe Obesity Report earlier this year, to which EPHA had the pleasure to contribute, the RC72 has seen a personal commitment of Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, to “tackle the wicked problem of obesity, as one-third of children and three-fifths of adults living with overweight and obesity is too high a price to pay.” It has also seen the support of Prof. Sanja Musić Milanović, epidemiologist and the first lady of Croatia, who seems ready to do what it takes to raise awareness and treat obesity the way it deserves.
The evidence is also clear in the field of alcohol research: there is no safe level of consumption, not when it comes to cancer risk. Still, in Europe, the public recognition of alcohol harm remains worryingly low, while the rates of alcohol consumption are the highest in the world. It then comes with no surprise that, EPHA, together with 15 other NGOs led by Movendi International, supported the WHO’s European Framework for Action on Alcohol, endorsed its evidence-based language, and supported the six areas for policy action. We called the WHO Europe and member states to adequately resource full implementation of the Framework, to develop guidance to protect alcohol policy from industry interference, and to strengthen governance of alcohol policies at the regional level.
Access to (Oslo) Medicines
EPHA was invited to participate in a Ministerial Session to discuss the Oslo Medicines Initiative (OMI), set up by the WHO Europe and the Norwegian Ministry of Health. Since its launch in 2020, the OMI has been addressing the complex issue of highly-priced medicines in Europe that threaten patients’ health and the sustainability of health systems. It is seeking solutions based on the principles of solidarity, transparency, and sustainability, involving all stakeholders. EPHA has actively contributed to this process by providing feedback along with other Non-State-Actors (which, as defined by the WHO, include NGOs and industry representatives), and by participating in several webinars organized by the OMI to various discuss aspects of access to affordable medicines.
During the RC72, Member States gave a mandate to the OMI to set up a multi-stakeholder platform to continue discussing this important issue. EPHA stands ready to continue to collaborate and strengthen the voice of independent civil society in this important debate.
Working for the workforce
A key Regional Report on “Health and Care Workforce in Europe” was also launched in Tel Aviv. The urgency of Europe’s health workforce crisis was emphasised by Dr Hans Kluge:
Personnel shortages, insufficient recruitment and retention, migration of qualified workers, unattractive working conditions, and poor access to continuing professional development opportunities are blighting health systems.
Many NGOs, including EPHA, supported a Regional Committee statement led by EPSU (European Federation of Public Services Unions), which said that governments had “the crucial responsibility of securing and delivering the required funding to increase investment in recruitment and retention of health and care professionals”.
Wellbeing comes in many shapes
A session on the challenge of Long COVID was also held in association with the NGO ‘Long COVID Europe’ which called for greater action and awareness of this condition. Clear messages included: the need to follow the science, invest in gathering evidence and the importance of working with the Long COVID community and listening to those directly affected. The need to act is now.
Furthermore, as a partner in the WHO’s Universal Wellbeing Economy initiative, EPHA took the opportunity to highlight its commitment to support WHO Europe in the endeavour to inspire governments, businesses, and the third sector to place the well-being of people at the heart of economic recovery. Enthused by the laudable leadership of the WHO Europe Office for Investment for Health and Development and member states that have already started paving the way for others to follow, EPHA looks forward to contributing to the High-level Regional Forum on Health in the Well-being Economy, in March 2023.
Looking ahead, with civil society onboard
On top of its work with and in the members’ states, WHO Europe demonstrates a continuous and increasingly meaningful engagement with civil society, with examples including the WHO Regional Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Network launched in 2021 with the aim of “establishing a permanent dialogue with civil society to expand knowledge and skills for emergency preparedness and response”.
This engagement is not limited to crisis response, but spills over to the work on the economy of wellbeing, health workforce, alcohol framework and others, and can be seen as best practice for connecting with civil society in different for and policy areas. EPHA is looking forward to further collaboration with the WHO, recognising the shared idea of people’s health, and of WHO & citizens combining forces.