The world is facing multiple health challenges. These range from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and diphtheria, increasing reports of drug-resistant pathogens, growing rates of obesity and physical inactivity to the health impacts of environmental pollution and climate change and multiple humanitarian crises.
To address these and other threats, 2020 sees the start of the World Health Organization’s new 5-year strategic plan – the 13th General Programme of Work. This plan focuses on a triple billion target: ensuring 1 billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, 1 billion more people are protected from health emergencies and 1 billion more people enjoy better health and well-being. Reaching this goal will require addressing the threats to health from a variety of angles.
Here are some of the many issues that will demand attention from WHO and health partners in 2020.
Air pollution and climate change
Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people. This includes 15 million people dying prematurely, aged between 30 and 69.
Over 85% of these premature deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. The rise of these diseases has been driven by five major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and air pollution. These risk factors also exacerbate mental health issues, that may originate from an early age: half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated – suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds.
Among many things, this year WHO will work with governments to help them meet the global target of reducing physical inactivity by 15% by 2030 – through such actions as implementing the ACTIVE policy toolkit to help get more people being active every day.
Global influenza pandemic
The world will face another influenza pandemic – the only thing we don’t know is when it will hit and how severe it will be. Global defences are only as effective as the weakest link in any country’s health emergency preparedness and response system.
WHO is constantly monitoring the circulation of influenza viruses to detect potential pandemic strains: 153 institutions in 114 countries are involved in global surveillance and response.
Every year, WHO recommends which strains should be included in the flu vaccine to protect people from seasonal flu. In the event that a new flu strain develops pandemic potential, WHO has set up a unique partnership with all the major players to ensure effective and equitable access to diagnostics, vaccines and antivirals (treatments), especially in developing countries.
Fragile and vulnerable settings
More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises (through a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict, and population displacement) and weak health services leave them without access to basic care.
Fragile settings exist in almost all regions of the world, and these are where half of the key targets in the sustainable development goals, including on child and maternal health, remains unmet.
WHO will continue to work in these countries to strengthen health systems so that they are better prepared to detect and respond to outbreaks, as well as able to deliver high-quality health services, including immunization.
Ebola and other high-threat pathogens
Weak primary health care
Yet many countries do not have adequate primary health care facilities. This neglect may be a lack of resources in low- or middle-income countries, but possibly also a focus in the past few decades on single disease programmes. In October 2018, WHO co-hosted a major global conference in Astana, Kazakhstan at which all countries committed to renew the commitment to primary health care made in the Alma-Ata declaration in 1978.
In 2019, WHO will work with partners to revitalize and strengthen primary health care in countries, and follow up on specific commitments made by in the Astana Declaration.
Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.
Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.
The reasons why people choose not to vaccinate are complex; a vaccines advisory group to WHO identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence are key reasons underlying hesitancy. Health workers, especially those in communities, remain the most trusted advisor and influencer of vaccination decisions, and they must be supported to provide trusted, credible information on vaccines.
In 2019, WHO will ramp up work to eliminate cervical cancer worldwide by increasing coverage of the HPV vaccine, among other interventions. 2019 may also be the year when transmission of wild poliovirus is stopped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, less than 30 cases were reported in both countries. WHO and partners are committed to supporting these countries to vaccinate every last child to eradicate this crippling disease for good.
An estimated 40% of the world is at risk of dengue fever, and there are around 390 million infections a year. WHO’s Dengue control strategy aims to reduce deaths by 50% by 2020.
The progress made against HIV has been enormous in terms of getting people tested, providing them with antiretrovirals (22 million are on treatment), and providing access to preventive measures such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP, which is when people at risk of HIV take antiretrovirals to prevent infection).
However, the epidemic continues to rage with nearly a million people every year dying of HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died. Today, around 37 million worldwide live with HIV. Reaching people like sex workers, people in prison, men who have sex with men, or transgender people is hugely challenging. Often these groups are excluded from health services. A group increasingly affected by HIV are young girls and women (aged 15–24), who are particularly at high risk and account for 1 in 4 HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa despite being only 10% of the population.
This year, WHO will work with countries to support the introduction of self-testing so that more people living with HIV know their status and can receive treatment (or preventive measures in the case of a negative test result). One activity will be to act on new guidance announced In December 2018, by WHO and the International Labour Organization to support companies and organizations to offer HIV self-tests in the workplace.