Ann Starrs is FCI’s president and co-founder.
During the third week of May, I was in Geneva — together with an impressive collection of global health leaders from governments, UN agencies, and civil society — for the 66th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA). I am in Geneva fairly often, for meetings with WHO, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH) and other partners, but the annual World Health Assembly meeting is unique. The WHA is the governing body of the World Health Organization, and so it is attended by high-level delegations – usually led by the Minister of Health – from WHO’s member states. That makes WHA a great opportunity for networking and strategizing: finding an available seat, much less a table, in the famous (but oddly named) Serpent Bar at the Palais de Nations is always a challenge, as many conference participants spend virtually all of their time huddled there in intense discussion.
Issues around reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health featured strongly in this year’s agenda, which is why I was there. The MDGs, and development goals beyond 2015; universal health coverage; life-saving commodities; and frameworks for holding countries and donors accountable for fulfilling their health commitments were all on the agenda, for formal discussion, side events, and hours of conversation at the Serpent Bar.
Perhaps most importantly, this year’s WHA considered, and ultimately passed, a resolution to implement the recommendations of the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. The resolution commits countries to improving the quality, supply, and delivery of underutilized and essential commodities for RMNCH, and tasks WHO with reporting back to WHA each year through 2015 on progress in implementing the Commodity Commission recommendations as well as those of Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health. The WHA resolution is a clear, global endorsement of the Commodity Commission recommendations, and represents a commitment by the world’s nations to ensure that life-saving medicines and technologies get to the women and children who need them. It is a significant achievement for our community, and it provides an important mechanism for ongoing advocacy, and for holding governments and development partners accountable for keeping their promises.
Notably, the Commodity Commission’s list of 13 priority commodities includes two that are advocacy priorities for FCI: misoprostol, a drug that is highly effective for preventing and treating postpartum hemorrhage (PPH), the leading cause of maternal death; and emergency contraceptives, which help women prevent unintended pregnancy after unprotected sex. (FCI is host organization for the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception—ICEC.) At a very well-attended side event during the WHA, hosted by the delegations from Nigeria, Norway, and the U.S., along with World Vision International and PATH, speakers focused on the importance of innovation in overcoming barriers to access to essential health commodities. Presentations highlighted the substantial achievements that have already been made, and the important step forward represented by the Commodity Commission’s recommendations. Representatives from various countries also noted the significant challenges that remain, including those related to health commodity distribution systems, manufacturing, and supply. Several countries expressed a preference for purchasing and distributing locally-manufactured commodities, although this approach can sometimes raise concerns about quality assurance; further study, and advocacy, will be needed to address this challenge.
Only a few days later, and half a world away, I was one of a dozen FCI staff members who attended Women Deliver 2013, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This week was even busier – in fact, much crazier – than the previous week in Geneva; there were meetings and events starting at 7 in the morning, and organized social events went until 8 or 9 pm every night. The conference was amazing, bringing together 4,500 leaders, clinicians, program managers, and advocates representing over 2,200 organizations and 149 countries. I could not take full advantage (or anywhere near it) of everything the conference had to offer; there was an endless variety of stimulating plenary and concurrent sessions (including six sessions presenting the latest findings from Countdown to 2015, in which FCI is a leading advocacy partner), as well as Speaker’s Corner (where FCI and WHO presented new tools for strengthening countries’ policies on adolescent sexual and reproductive health). There was a youth corner and a cinema corner, a busy and bustling exhibition hall, and many, many other activities going on at all times. The cumulative value of all the connections made, facts and ideas conveyed, materials disseminated, and plans and strategies developed was immeasurable but immense.
Here, too, essential health commodities were on the agenda. On the Monday morning just before the conference officially started, FCI co-sponsored a side event called “In Our Hands: Successful Strategies to Prioritize Essential Maternal Health Supplies,” at which the Maternal Health Supplies Working Group and the Maternal Health Supplies Caucus of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition brought together global and national advocates and program implementers in an interactive forum – including advocacy case studies from Africa, Asia and Latin America – to network, strategize, and exchange ideas for elevating maternal health supplies onto global and national health agendas. At the same time, ICEC co-sponsored a session on “Emergency Contraception: New Research Findings, Programmatic Updates, and Advocacy Strategies,” at which advocates, researchers, pharmaceutical representatives, and other leaders in the field discussed efforts to ensure access to EC globally, with a focus on developing countries.
That afternoon, FIGO and Gynuity Health Projects (our partners in misoprostol advocacy) co-hosted a discussion of misoprostol for PPH: “New Evidence and the Way Forward.” Presenters offered the latest information on ways that the current evidence can help inform and develop effective policies and service delivery programs across varying levels of the health system, and on lessons learned from innovative programs in Afghanistan and Nepal. I concluded the session with a presentation on advocacy opportunities and challenges for “Making Misoprostol an Operational Reality.”
At these and related sessions the level of discussion, the enthusiastic participation by advocates and health workers, and the clear attention that these issues are getting from policy makers, made for an inspiring and energizing two weeks. “Making sure that women and children have the medicines and other supplies they need is critical for our push to achieve the MDGs,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he launched the Commodities Commission 15 months ago. Progress is being made, and we, together with our advocacy partners, are working hard to make sure that essential commodities are available to all who need them.