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The 59th Session of the Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean opens in Cairo Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, 1-4 October 2012 with the participation of Ministers of Health of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region

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The 59th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean will be held on 1-4 October 2012 at the premises of the Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, Cairo, Egypt. Functioning as WHO highest governing body at the regional level, with membership of the 23 Ministers of Health of the Eastern Mediterranean Region countries, the Ministerial meeting will address the five strategic priorities of Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean and his vision to strengthen work with Member States.

This is the first session since Dr Ala Alwan assumed his duties as WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean in February 2012.

Participating in the discussions are Ministers of Health, their representatives, Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, Dr Ala Alwan, representatives of national, regional and international organizations and agencies concerned with health, as well as experts from WHO headquarters and the Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.

Noncommunicable diseases, notably cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory conditions, represent major causes of death. Globally, noncommunicable diseases alone cause more deaths than those caused by all other causes and they strike the populations of the developing communities the hardest. These diseases have reached epidemic levels. In the Eastern Mediterranean Region, noncommunicable diseases account for 53% of all deaths and this percentage may be as high as 80% in some countries in the Region. The Regional Committee will review strategies to prevent and control noncommunicable diseases including the Political Declaration adopted by heads of state and government during the United Nations General Assembly 66th Session.

One of the 5 strategic priorities is enhancing mother and child health as 2 of 3 health-related goals of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) endorsed by 189 heads of government in 1990. Some countries in the Region have recently managed to reduce numbers of deaths among children. This is a significant achievement in a Region that has 5 countries among the countries with the highest burden of mother and child mortality in the world. The Region now has a better chances of achieving Goal 4, which is to reduce mortality of children under 5 by two thirds between 1990 and 2015, while Goal 5 to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015 and Goal 6 to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS remain a challenge. A number of countries in the Region have succeeded, or almost succeeded, in achieving the three MDGs. However, some countries are behind in realizing the goals

Strengthening health systems is one of the five strategic priorities identified by the Regional Office for the next five years. This priority is especially important as it directly relates to development and expansion of health care services to cover all populations. A technical paper on this topic will be presented to the Regional Committee and will investigate obstacles and challenges with policy-makers in the Region, including the need to secure high-level political commitment to achieve universal health coverage, strengthening capacity of health ministries, reducing out-of-pocket expenditure, promoting the contribution of the private sector to public health and its regulation, preparing skilled workforce and approving practical models of family medicine practice. Members of the Committee will discuss means to strengthen health systems.

Five years have elapsed since the International Health Regulations (IHR) entered into force on 15 June 2007, however most of the countries have not yet met all the requirements for full implementation of the IHR. Of the 23 countries in the Region, only 8 countries have achieved 70% of the technical capacity required to implement the IHR by 15 June 2012. A technical paper will be presented to the Session about the challenges encountered by countries during 5 years of implementation. The International Health Regulations (IHR) are an international legal instrument that is binding on 194 countries across the globe, including all the Member States of WHO. Their aim is to help the international community prevent and respond to acute public health risks that have the potential to cross borders and threaten people worldwide. Revising the IHR in 2005 has resulted in unprecedented agreement in the international public health giving the way to contain health emergencies where they erupt and not only on the national borders.

The Committee will discuss strategies and procedures to advance IHR activities in the Region.

The Regional Committee will also review a progress report on the implementation of the 2011-2015 regional strategy to address HIV in light of the available data about the epidemic. It is estimated that 560 000 people were living with HIV in the Eastern Mediterranean by the end of 2010. Although the total rate of HIV prevalence remains low (0.2%), the number of new HIV infections reached 82 000 (7400 of which are paediatric infections). Lack of, and limited quality and reliability of data constitute a major barrier to efforts to control the AIDS epidemic. On the second day of the Committee, a separate session is devoted to launch of the initiative "Towards the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV".

The Committee will review progress in the eradication of poliomyelitis in the Eastern Mediterranean. WHO’s Executive Board has declared that completing the eradication of poliomyelitis is a global public health emergency. Eradication of polio tops the regional priorities of the Eastern Mediterranean and the programme functions under direct supervision and instruction of the Regional Director. The programme seeks to assist Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries where polio cases are reported, in their efforts to prevent the transmission of the poliovirus, remove hindrances to immunization activities in certain provinces and contain the current foci of the virus.

The Committee will review a progress report on the tobacco free initiative in view of the studies conducted by the Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, including a pilot study on levels of indirect exposure to tobacco smoke in the Region conducted in collaboration with Member States and Institute for Global Tobacco Control 2010-2011. Findings of the study indicate that there is active smoking in 98 out of 244 public places in capitals of the countries participating in the study. This highlights the dense spread of second-hand smoking and its grave effects on the health of smokers and non-smokers alike. A global study on the burden of disease related to indirect smoking published in 2011 found that more than 600 000 deaths occurred in 2004 globally due to exposure to indirect smoking. The Regional Office proposes a package of interventions to control smoking which will be discussed during the Regional Committee.

This Session will review a progress report on improving health care financing in the Region. A resolution adopted by WHO urges Member States to increase investment in health. Progress achieved is currently measured by assessing per capita total expenditure on health within the same country and across countries. Evidence shows there is significant disparity in health expenditure across the Region ranging between US$ 1636 per capita annually in the highest tier countries and about US$ 38 per capital in the lowest tier countries Meanwhile, other countries struggle to improve the average health expenditure.

Additionally, the Session will address a number of important health issues and topics, decisions and resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly in its latest meeting.