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COVID-19: Consequences of ‘chronic under-investment in public health’ laid bare

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A nurse who recovered from COVID-19 is back at work helping patients at a hospital in Malawi. © UNICEF

A global chronic under-investment in public health has been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, which must now lead to a major re-think in how all societies value health, said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was making closing remarks at the closing of WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, which finalized its annual session this week after its regular May meeting was cut short by COVID-19 safety requirements.

Historic vaccine advances

The WHO chief highlighted the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine breakthrough announced this week, which results indicate could be around 90 per cent effective, saying he had “no doubt” that vaccines were a vital tool for controlling the on-going pandemic.

“Never in history has vaccine research progressed so quickly. We must apply the same urgency and innovation to ensuring that all countries benefit from this scientific achievement.

“But we have a long way to go. The world cannot put all its eggs in one basket and neglect the many other tools at our disposal, that countries like Thailand have shown are effective, for bringing this virus under control.”

What works against the virus before inoculation, are isolation, testing and treatment programmes, where the contacts of those infected are traced and then quarantine.

Chronic weakness

The COVID-19 pandemic has “demonstrated the consequences of chronic under-investment in public health”, said Tedros, and the health crisis, “has ignited a socio-economic crisis that has impacted billions of lives and livelihoods and undermined global stability and solidarity. Returning to the status quo is not an option.”

The WHO chief said it wasn’t just more investment that was needed in public health infrastructure, “we must also rethink how we value health.”

New brains trust on health economics

Tedros told the Assembly that that time has now come to think of healthcare as an investment, not a cost, “that is the foundation of productive, resilient and stable economies.”

“To start building that narrative, today I am proud to announce that we are establishing a new Council on the Economics of Health for All, to focus on the links between health and sustainable, inclusive and innovation-led economic growth.”

He said the first virtual session of the Council, which will bring together leading economists and health experts, will likely hold its first virtual session in the coming weeks, to set out its work plan and best way of working.

“The pandemic has also shown that there is an urgent need for a globally agreed system for sharing pathogen materials and clinical samples”, he added, “to facilitate the rapid development of medical countermeasures as global public goods.”

Productive session

Among the Assembly’s achievements through the week were a new roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030; a new roadmap for neglected tropical diseases; a resolution on scaled-up action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders; the adoption of the Immunization Agenda 2030; the Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer as a public health problem; and the Global Strategy for TB Research and Innovation.

“Each of these represents an urgent health priority that affects the lives of millions of people, and which increases the demands on, and expectations of, WHO”, said Tedros.

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Health & Wellness

COVID-19 cases rise for first time in seven weeks

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A healthcare worker checks the temperature of a patient at a hospital in Nonthaburi Province, Thailand. UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

After six consecutive weeks of decline, COVID-19 cases worldwide increased last week for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday. 

Four of the agency’s six regions reported a rise in numbers, with Africa and the Western Pacific excluded. 

“This is disappointing, but not surprising”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking during his biweekly press briefing from Geneva. 

“Some of it appears to be due to relaxing of public health measures, continued circulation of variants, and people letting down their guard.” 

The jump in cases comes as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues. 

“Vaccines will help to save lives, but if countries rely solely on vaccines, they’re making a mistake”, Tedros warned, underscoring the importance of basic public health measures such as testing, contact tracing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds. 

‘Encouraging’ signs 

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire began vaccinating health care workers on Monday, becoming the first countries to benefit from a global mechanism for ensuring vaccine equity.   

Through the COVAX Facility, WHO and our partners are working to ensure every country can begin vaccination within the first 100 days of the year.  

COVAX will deliver 11 million doses to countries this week.  By the end of May, some 240 million doses will be allocated to 142 participating countries. 

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, pointed to “encouraging” signs as the world continues to gear up for what is the largest vaccine deployment in history. 

“We’ve seen early data from countries where vaccination campaigns started months ago, the impact that this is having on reducing hospitalizations, reducing deaths, particularly in the older age groups, amongst the vulnerable. We’ve even seen very encouraging data in reduction in infections among health care workers who have received the vaccine”, she said. 

“So, these are still early days, but the signs are encouraging; the safety profile is encouraging. About 250 million doses have been given worldwide, and so far, there have been no major safety signals, so that is reassuring as well.” 

Concern for Tigray region 

WHO explained that some countries have received COVAX vaccines early due to several factors such as the level of government preparedness, but logistical challenges in distributing vaccines, which include labelling, packaging and shipping, can also affect deployment. 

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director, spoke about the difficulty in reaching conflict areas such as the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been fighting since November. 

He said the situation is of grave concern, as water, sanitation, essential health services and COVID-19 intervention have been disrupted. Many people are living in displacement camps, increasing risk of diarrhoeal disease, malaria and other illneses. 

WHO has worked to provide essential supplies to cover 450,000 people, or roughly 10 per cent of the population, for three months, Dr. Ryan told journalists.  

“Our primary aim as an organization, wherever we work, is to ensure that all people have access to the basic, essential human right of access to basic health care”, he said. 

“We will work with the Ministry of Health; we will work with health cluster partners and anybody else who can help us to provide better access to the population there.” 

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Health & Wellness

Over 500,000 people have been inoculated against COVID-19 in Moscow

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The number of people who wish to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Moscow has reached half a million, and over 500,000 of them have already received their first jab. Every day between 12,000 and 20,000 residents of the city sign up for vaccination.

Vaccines are being administered in 100 vaccination points in city polyclinics and 20 popular public places, where mobile teams have been deployed. The list of categories of citizens entitled to vaccination is constantly expanding and the city’s vaccination campaign is picking up pace.

The list of categories of citizens prioritized for vaccination also includes Muscovites over the age of 60 years old (who form the largest risk group and are most vulnerable to COVID-19). More than 9,000 residents of 33 retirement homes have already been vaccinated. In addition, vaccination is recommended for people with chronic diseases who need to stay at home, as well as college and university students over 18 years of age.

A convenient online vaccination appointments system has been set up specially for Muscovites in the mos.ru portal. It can be accessed by going to ‘Doctor’s Appointment’ in the list of services and selecting ‘Vaccination Against COVID-19’.

In addition, vaccine appointments can be made via the My Moscow mobile app, the Moscow Gosuslugi government services website and the emais.info medical services portal, as well as by calling a vaccination center. The vaccine is administered in two doses, with appointments for the second injection being made automatically.

Many large employers are requesting on-site vaccination of their staff, and this network will be gradually expanded. Naturally, the throughput capacity of such organizations and, most importantly, the employers’ wishes are being taken into account.

Detailed information on the vaccination program has also been posted in the portal’s special project.

The Sputnik V vaccine consists of two components requiring two injections, and provides a reliable immune response. Volunteers will first be injected with the first component of the vaccine, with a second vaccination following 21 days later. Only the first appointment needs to be booked, as the doctor will arrange the patient’s second visit on the day of their first vaccination. To ensure that people do not forget about their re-vaccination, they will receive an SMS message the day before it, reminding them of the date, time and clinic they need to attend.

The vaccination process takes at least an hour, including a 10-minute examination by a doctor before the vaccination and 15 minutes spent preparing the vaccine, which is stored in frozen state (with five doses in one vial) and thawed for five patients at once when they have been examined. Post-vaccination observation and examination take a further 30 minutes. Each patient receives a certificate recording the two injections and confirming that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vaccine was produced using a biotechnological process based on the most modern technological platform created by Russian scientists. It is safe because it does not contain the coronavirus. It is based on special structures (carrier vectors) created in the laboratory that contain only a part of the virus gene. Upon encountering the vaccine, the human immune system produces protective antibodies.

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Natalia Vodianova joins UNFPA to tackle stigma and advance women’s health

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Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova has been appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA. Photo: UNFPA

The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, on Wednesday appointed supermodel, philanthropist, and impact investor Natalia Vodianova as its newest Goodwill Ambassador, in an effort to empower women and girls, including fighting stigma surrounding menstruation.

“For too long, society’s approach to menstruation and women’s health has been defined by taboo and stigma”, said Ms. Vodianova, stressing that the situation “has undermined the most basic needs and rights of women.”

In her new role with UNFPA, officially known as the UN Population Fund, Ms. Vodianova will seek to help culturally redefine menstruation, as a normal bodily function.

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are actively menstruating. In many countries, taboos surrounding the cycle leaves girls vulnerable and can even be life-threatening, says UNFPA, as they are excluded from public life, denied opportunities, sanitation and basic health needs.

Major mission

The agency said in a press release, that the issue has been starved of the attention it deserves, but in recent years that has started to change, and “achieving this, is central to UNFPA’s mandate”.

“It’s a tragic irony that something as universal as menstruation can make girls feel so isolated…We all have a role to play in breaking the taboos around menstruation”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, underscoring the significance of spotlighting the damage caused.

She added that the agency “is pleased to partner with such a powerful and committed advocate. Societies prosper when girls are confident, empowered and making their own decisions!”

Building on past momentum

Over the past three years, Ms. Vodianova has teamed up with UNFPA to launch a series of “Let’s Talk” events worldwide, which have mobilised policy makers, civil society and the private sector to help tackle shame, exclusion and discrimination, faced routinely by millions of women and girls.

Leaders from various sectors such as fashion, politics, sport, technology and media have also gathered in Turkey, Kenya, Switzerland, Belarus and India to advance women’s health.

Raised in poverty by a single mother in Russia, along with caring for a half-sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, Ms.Vodianova is a passionate advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights and the rights of people living with disabilities, UNFPA noted.

The agency said it was looking forward to working with her in her role as a bridge builder across the fashion and technology industries, where she’s an influential international voice, to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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