Commonwealth, WHO to strengthen cooperation on public health issues

The Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Health Organization (WHO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) committing to strengthening their collaboration on a broad range of public health issues of particular concern to Commonwealth member states and governments, such as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine equity, advancing universal health coverage, and building resilient health systems.

The MoU was signed at a ceremony held at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland QC, and the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The Commonwealth Secretariat plays an important role in fostering and supporting greater cohesion among member states and governments across a range of policy areas and programmes.

In signing the document, the two parties agreed to work together and strengthen the exchange of information on seven priority areas: Promoting universal health coverage and primary healthcare; Strengthening global health security; Promoting healthy environments; Promoting the health of vulnerable groups; Transforming lifelong learning for health impact; Building a data partnership; and Creating space for innovation and exchange of knowledge.

This collaboration underscores the Commonwealth Secretariat’s and WHO’s longstanding commitment to ensuring equitable access to quality health services and promoting the health and wellbeing of all people.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Scotland said: “Equitable access to vaccines is the world’s most pressing political, economic, social and moral priority. Without effective and prompt action on vaccines, we face a never-ending global health crisis that will reduce all of our wealth and security.

“And the most effective way for the world to tackle this and other challenges that we face, whether COVID-19, climate change or universal health coverage, is by working through multilateral institutions such as the Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Health Organization.

“The Memorandum of Understanding we have signed today demonstrates that both organisations share a vision for cooperation and action on these challenges, and a commitment to creating the conditions for people across the Commonwealth to flourish. It is a pleasure to work with colleagues from the World Health Organization and I hope this agreement will enable us to work more effectively and productively far into the future.”

Tedros said: “Partnership is essential in ensuring all people can achieve the highest level of health possible. The new agreement between the World Health Organization and the Commonwealth Secretariat reflects the importance of collaboration to promote and protect people’s wellbeing. WHO’s commitment to supporting all Commonwealth countries will be strengthened through our commitment to promoting universal health coverage, global health security and ensuring vulnerable groups receive all support needed to lead healthy lives.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put immense pressure on global health systems, especially those of developing countries with weaker health systems, halting progress made over the last 20 years towards attaining health-related Sustainable Development Goals. This has, in turn, put the prevention and treatment of life-threatening diseases, including cancers, diabetes, heart diseases, and malaria at risk.

The Commonwealth is disproportionately affected by a number of preventable diseases. The 25 malaria-endemic countries of the Commonwealth account for 56% of the world’s malaria deaths and 54% of the world’s malaria cases. Commonwealth members account for 40% of global cervical cancer incidence and 43% of cervical cancer mortality, despite having only 30% of the world’s population.

The Commonwealth and WHO will therefore reinforce cooperation to scale up global efforts to improve health outcomes across the Commonwealth. This partnership will also contribute towards the shared goal of fast-tracking the elimination of malaria and blinding trachoma, and eliminating cervical cancer, as universally endorsed by Commonwealth Heads of Government.

The signing of the MoU takes place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to pose a significant threat to public health, especially with the spread of new highly contagious variants.

As of Jan 31, over 77 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in the Commonwealth, with hundreds of thousands of new cases being reported daily. Furthermore, 42% of Commonwealth citizens are fully vaccinated. The percentage of fully vaccinated people ranges from 23% in African countries of the Commonwealth to 43% in the WHO Region of the Americas and 56% in the WHO Western Pacific Region.

These figures reflect the global trend of high and upper-middle-income countries procuring and administering a significant proportion of the total number of vaccines.1

On the occasion, both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring equitable access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and advancing WHO’s target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by July 2022.

The signing ceremony was virtually attended by Ambassadors from Commonwealth member states in Geneva and included interventions from ministers and Ambassadors representing Commonwealth regions, who all welcomed the partnership.


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