“All eyes on COVID-19”: World Health Assembly

Dr Geoffrey Wabulembo, Medical Director for Eye Health and NTDs at Light for the World, comments on the 2020 World Health Assembly and its impact on our work
doctor looks into a microscope (c) Light for the World

 

In normal years in May, health experts from around the world flock together in Geneva for the World Health Assembly— the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation (WHO). In normal years, the halls of the Palais des Nations echo with talks on child health, universal coverage and vaccination campaigns. But 2020 is not a normal year for any of us – including the WHO. For the first time ever, the World Health Assembly takes place today ‘virtually’. And its focus is almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic.

All Eyes on COVID-19

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director of the WHO, said in April: “COVID-19 poses a global threat and people with disabilities must not be left behind in the response.” WHO also produced an excellent set of Disability considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic and its effects particularly impact people with disabilities. Health information, testing and treatment are often not accessible to them. At today’s meeting, we urge Member States to remember the WHO’s calls for a disability-inclusive response to COVID-19.

Global Public Health Agenda

The global response to COVID-19 has shown the value of strong health systems and planning, firmly supported by WHO. To focus on the pandemic, the World Health Assembly moved all other items on its plate to a session later this year. 

Still, there are two things to highlight.

First, eye care: Last year, the World Report on Vision showed that of the 2.2 billion cases of vision impairment or blindness worldwide, over 1 billion could have been prevented or are yet to be addressed. The Report made clear that we need to integrate eye care into universal health plans, offer a people-centred continuum of promotion, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation interventions, and provide budget for that. 

At the next opportunity, the World Health Assembly will decide on a resolution on “Integrated people-centred eye care, including preventable vision impairment and blindness”. This resolution will turn the technical recommendations of the Report into political commitments. While it is too early to celebrate, we still want to thank all stakeholders who worked on and supported this crucial text.

Second, Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs): The World Health Assembly will deliberate on a new “Road map for neglected tropical diseases 2021-2030”. Among other diseases, this key document sets targets and indicators for the elimination of river blindness and trachoma. 

Our Work

Addressing global eye health and NTDs has been made more complicated by COVID-19. But the challenges mount higher with each passing day. Eye health leaders must work together on solutions for restarting essential eye care as soon as possible. We need solutions on how to avoid irreversible diseases, unnecessary decrease of productivity and increase of dependence among those affected. 

Light for the Word is supporting countries like Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Uganda to find these solutions and urgently needed equipment to provide safe eye health services as soon as it’s safe to do so. Surgery for Trichiasis is not mentioned in any of the international documents as an emergency and yet in the trachoma endemic regions every blink brings the patient closer to permanent corneal damage and blindness. 

We had been moving so much closer to the elimination of Trachoma and Onchocerciasis as a public health issue in Tigray and Western Oromia regions in Ethiopia, but COVID-19 has interrupted activities and is hampering that progress. It will be key to find new and innovative ways of delivering on that ambition in the coming months and years, without risking the health and safety of our staff, partners and beneficiaries. 

Ready to resume the fight 

For the time being, our efforts are focused on COVID-19. But, much like the World Health Assembly, we stand ready to work on eye health and NTDs together with health authorities and experts in our partner countries.

We are ready to resume the fight for eye health for all, with the WHO and our partners, at the earliest possible time.