Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton gave a passionate and personal address at #WHA72’s opening this morning. Image: Brian W. Simpson

A Surprise Beginning for #WHA72

Something unexpected happened this morning at the opening of the 72nd World Health Assembly. 

Usually a rote exercise of procedure and aggrandizement, the Assembly surprised many with an unexpected quality: Emotion.

The change came early in the morning when Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, gave a passionate guest address in which he shared a personal health crisis. 

Horton, known for his wit and outspoken calls for social justice, wasted no time when he took the podium. The applause was still fading when the tall, thin editor shared responses from his social media followers to his query: “If you had 10 minutes to speak to 194 member states at the World Health Assembly, what would you say?”

He selected the top 5 replies and formatted them as demands: Declare a planetary emergency because of climate change; ensure women’s rights; invest in safe surgery and anesthesia; next year, bring ministers of finance because “health is a whole-of-government issue”; and support the Director-General by fully funding WHO.

Horton warned of the “discordant times” we live in and rising risks from everything from pollution to overweight and conflict and shortages of health workers. “I think we are living in a moment of danger. Progress in health is not inevitable,” Horton said. “The gains we have made are fragile.”

Advocates of universal health coverage need to approach it with clear-eyed resolution because it is a “permanent and tough political struggle,” he said. He appealed to the better natures of the delegates representing governments of the 194 member states saying, “The struggle for health is also the struggle for a just society.”

After noting that the global demand for cancer chemotherapy will increase from 10 million in 2018 to 15 million by 2040 (two-thirds of whom will live in low- and middle-income settings), he shared his own story with cancer: 10 weeks ago he was treated for metastatic cancer. 

“There’s very little beauty in disease,” he said, “but there is inspiration to be found in health.” 

But rather than detailing his personal travails, he extolled his country’s National Health System. The delegates responded with sustained applause.

And that was not all. 

Youth advocate and University of Zambia student Natasha Mwansa alternately charmed and berated the delegates, cajoling them to support UHC and other priorities for health. “The power we give you—it is to serve us,” Mwansa said, later adding: “Let us invest in women and health whatever way we can.”

The Assembly took a solemn turn as Tedros honored the family of Richard Valery Mouzoko who was killed on April 19 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Cameroonian epidemiologist, Mouzoko had deployed to the DRC as part of WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak. Gunmen from the violence-plagued part of DRC burst into a staff meeting that Mouzoko was leading in Butembo and killed him.

“His death is an enormous loss for WHO and the people of DRC who he was serving when his life was brutally taken last month,” Tedros said. “Dr. Richard Valery made ultimate the sacrifice but that sacrifice will not be made in vain. It is thanks to people like him that the epidemic will be defeated.”

A plaque honoring Mouzoko will be placed in WHO headquarters. 

Following a moment of silence for Mouzoko and other health care workers killed in the line of duty, Tedros gave his opening address for the Assembly. It touched on UHC, his prime priority, and other urgent topics for the week but the emotional tone remained. He shared the stories of individuals—of Bolu Rambhav Omble, a 65-year-old laborer in Pune, India, who had knee replacement surgery thanks to his country’s new insurance program, of Laura Brennan, a 26-year-old advocate for HPV vaccination who lost her life to cervical cancer in March, of several others.

For a few moments, at least, amid the urgency of a massive international meeting, people and their health issues were the center of attention.

Ed. Note: More news from #WHA72 here

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Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton gave a passionate and personal address at #WHA72’s opening this morning. Image: Brian W. Simpson