GSO Commentary — “Taking It Upstream”: Update from the 65th World Health Assembly

by Kimberly Reed, Executive Director, International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Date: 05/23/12

Note: This blog is being co-published on the IFIC Nutrition Blog 

This week, I am attending the 65th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland, as a civil society delegate. WHA is the an annual gathering of health ministers from around the world, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as global health leaders.

Noncommunicable disease (NCD) prevention and control is one of the main agenda items at this year’s WHA. NCDs include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease, and are responsible for two-thirds of all deaths globally. In her opening address, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, when highlighting NCDs, reminded the delegates that, as they began their work this week, “[l]ast year’s [United Nations] Political Declaration on NCDsassigned a number of responsibilities to WHO. You have before you a report on the multiple steps WHO has taken to meet these expectations.” She further assured the audience that “we are giving these diseases, and our role in their prevention and control, the utmost priority.”

NCD-related efforts also have been a major focus at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation over the past year, as we encourage the use of science-based communication strategies to help reduce the prevalence of NCDs. And, earlier this year, at the request of WHO, the IFIC Foundation provided overarching comments to Director-General Chan on two WHO discussion papers: options for strengthening multisectoral action and lessons learnt from existing multisectoral partnerships that may inform the global response to NCDs. A WHO Secretariat Report discussed during today’s WHA proceedings highlighted that 43 NGOs (which included the IFIC Foundation) and private sector entities provided views on the discussion papers and that “[w]hile the range of comments and views received was extensive, a number of common denominators could be identified. The identified gaps and challenges that global partnerships should target included ‘upstream’ engagement outside the health sector.”

The IFIC Foundation underscores the importance of this upstream engagement. As outlined in a May 2012 Nutrition Reviews article (also submitted to Dr. Chan as part of our comments), we believe that “[w]hen considering next steps and how to move ahead on NCD-related communication strategies . . . it is important that all stakeholders – including those from government, civil society, research and clinical academia, and industry – become partners, not adversaries. To be successful, health officials, health professionals, communicators, and other stakeholders cannot work in silos. Instead, the public and private sectors must work together to develop and deliver consistent messaging.

Several side events also reiterated different aspects of this upstream engagement. On Sunday, the Global Social Observatory,hosted a discussion on good practices for multi-stakeholder action. The panel focused on the applicability and usefulness of central messages to address action in education, workplace, primary health care, and community and government services. The accompanying picture (taken by Ralph Doggett, COO, Hagen Resources International) shows me offering our IFIC Foundation one-page fact sheet on communication strategies to help reduce the prevalence of NCDs as a helpful resource to attendees. The fact sheet is available in the six official United Nations languages: : EnglishArabic,ChineseFrenchRussian, and Spanish.

Later that afternoon, Dr. Karen Sealey, WHO/Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Special Adviser (pictured at podium) addressed attendees at an International Food and Beverage Alliance event on the private sector’s role in the prevention and control of NCDs. Dr. Sealey stressed the importance of scaling-up successful initiatives and sharing them with others so that they can be taken forward, including on the local, national, regional, and global levels.

Dr. Chan, like Dr. Sealey and many other distinguished speakers who are emphasizing the need for upstream partnership this week, summed up the outlook for the future: “I believe the best days of health are ahead up us, not behind us.” “Upstream” partnerships, including on the communications front as we address NCDs, will help make these best days possible. Help us take it upstream!