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Making eye health a priority for WHO
This week Sightsavers is taking part in the World Health Assembly, an annual event bringing together Ministers of Health from all 194 World Health Organization (WHO) Member States. Every year the World Health Assembly discusses critical public health concerns and this year will include sessions on the Millennium Development Goals, non-communicable diseases and universal health coverage. This year’s World Health Assembly is particularly important for Sightsavers as there will be an update on progress on the 2009-2013 WHO Action Plan on Prevention of Avoidable Blindness and Visual Impairment and we also hope that this will be the start of discussions on the next WHO Action Plan for this area of work which will run from 2014-2019.
Eye health, however, still remains a low priority for many WHO member states, especially low- and middle-income countries, as limited health budgets frequently mean that other health priorities, such as preventing and treating HIV and AIDS, or reducing maternal and child mortality rates, understandably, use up the majority of the limited resources that are available. So given this, why does Sightsavers think it’s so important to be present at the World Health Assembly? Our main reason for taking part in this year’s World Health Assembly is, working in partnership with Fred Hollows Foundation and IAPB, to start to raise the profile of eye care as a critical health issue and to begin to illustrate how eye health can be better integrated with other health priorities such as malaria, maternal and child health, primary health care and health systems strengthening.
We are also hoping that our presence at the World Health Assembly this year will create an opportunity for us to share our experiences and knowledge on what makes a strong eye health programme with Ministers from the many countries in which we work and will provide us with an opportunity for Ministers to draw on these experiences to shape the next WHO Action Plan on Avoidable Blindness and Visual Impairment (the title of which we are hoping will change to reflect the broader approach to eye health that Sightsavers and other organisations are now beginning to take).
So, given that we are investing in sending Sightsavers staff to the World Health Assembly, how will we determine whether our involvement in the meeting has been successful and what contributions will our presence here have made to improving the eye health of the people we work with in our 30+ countries? If by the end of our time at the World Health Assembly, ministers of countries where we are working have heard more about what we do and have started to recognise the importance of eye health then this will definitely be a success for us – we really need more countries to begin to see why eye health is so important - after all 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, 39 million of whom are blind. Non-communicable diseases, the MDGs, and universal health coverage will also be big topics at the World Health Assembly this year – if by the end of the week we have been able to help delegations understand why it is important to include eye health in debates, actions, policies and plans aiming at tackling these crucial areas of work, we will have made good progress in setting the stage for further work in these areas which we hope, ultimately, will lead to much more effective, efficient and sustainable provision of eye care.
Juliet Milgate, Sightsavers’ Policy Advisor for Health Systems, is also at the World Health Assembly. For updates follow @sightsavers on twitter and look for tweets prefixed ^JM containing the hashtag #WHA65.
If you or your colleagues are at the World Health Assembly, I’ll be speaking at a lunchtime seminar hosted by the Australian Government on Thursday. Come and join me to find out more about why eye health is so important. Details below:
Here is a video we worked on with the Fred Hollows Foundation, for the World Health Assembly. It shows how important it is to get commitments to eliminating avoidable blindness, and how relatively simple the solutions are. We also worked with Fred Hollows to produce the following policy paper and brochure to help influence people at the event.
Please note that Sightsavers' blog posts are the opinions of the author and contributors, meant to encourage debate and discussion, and not Sightsavers' official policy positions.