Mapping out the future of health for WHO European Region

After holding its most important annual gathering online amid the pandemic for 2 years in a row, WHO/Europe convened the 72nd session of its Regional Committee (RC72) on 12–14 September 2022 in Israel. All 53 Member States from across Europe and central Asia were invited, along with a variety of health partners. In all, some 500 participants came to Tel Aviv for RC72, with another 200 participating online. The outcomes were substantial.

Delegates endorsed blueprints to better target and ultimately end several diseases that remain a challenge, including cervical cancer, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and viral hepatitis.

To advance the aspiration of leaving no one behind, countries adopted the first-ever European framework for action to achieve the highest attainable standard of health for the estimated 135 million people with disabilities in the WHO European Region.

Delegates also approved a framework to tackle the harms caused by alcohol in the Region, where 2500 people die every day as a result of alcohol-
related illnesses – the world’s highest such burden. Not least, Member States formally approved action plans for 2 of WHO/Europe’s flagship initiatives – digital health and behavioural and cultural insights (BCI) – both of which unlock potential to transform how health policies and programmes are devised, implemented and evaluated.

“We’ve been forging ahead on all of these issues and plans for quite a long time now, despite the challenges and impacts of the pandemic,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“The frameworks and action plans discussed and endorsed at RC72 are ambitious, far-sighted, yet practical. They provide our Member States with clear roadmaps with well-defined milestones leading to better health for all. For these plans to succeed, however, we need health leadership, health resources and – crucially – political will.”

How to better prepare for and tackle health emergencies was a key focus at RC72, with the pandemic still far from over. A special session on post COVID-19 syndrome, or long COVID, featured strong partnerships with advocacy groups such as Long COVID Europe. WHO/Europe shared modelling from its partner the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that estimates the Region has at least 17 million long COVID cases.
Another alarm was sounded through the landmark regional report “Health and care workforce in Europe: time to act”. With 40% of doctors close to retirement age, a long-running lack of investment in health workers both in terms of salary and career advancement opportunities, and large numbers of health providers facing severe burnout from almost three years of the pandemic, the report urges countries to strategize and act quickly to stave off what could be a disaster for health.

“The pandemic and concurrent emergencies have jeopardized many countries’ ability to maintain essential services, such as childhood immuni-zation and cancer screenings,” Dr Kluge noted.

“We must accept that increasing and often overlapping crises are the new normal, as COVID-19, monkeypox and polio have shown us. Hence, we need a dual-track approach to health: Whilst we prepare for emergencies, we must also invest in regular, everyday, essential health programmes and services. The latter cannot be sacrificed for the former.”

Although reflections on the Region’s health challenges punctuated the 3 days of RC72, the meeting ended on an optimistic note after countries adopted a strengthened mechanism for closer collaboration between WHO/Europe and Member States.