General

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the WHO press conference – 23 March 2022

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

The global increase in COVID-19 cases continues, driven by large outbreaks in Asia and a fresh wave in Europe.

Several countries are now seeing their highest death rates since the beginning of the pandemic.

This reflects the speed with which Omicron spreads, and the heightened risk of death for those who are not vaccinated, especially older people.

We all want to move on from the pandemic. But no matter how much we wish it away, this pandemic is not over.

Until we reach high vaccination coverage in all countries, we will continue to face the risk of infections surging, and new variants emerging that evade vaccines.

Even as some high-income countries propose a second booster dose, one third of the world’s population remains unvaccinated.

But there are some promising signs of progress.

In Nigeria, for example, vaccine uptake was dramatically increased when supply stabilized, and planning was done on how to effectively distribute vaccines.

WHO’s target remains to vaccinate 70% of the population of every country by the middle of this year, with priority given to health workers, older people and other at-risk groups.

Achieving that target is essential to save lives, prevent the risk of long COVID, protect health systems and increase population immunity.

Other tools, including testing, sequencing and contact tracing, also remain essential, and it’s vital that countries don’t abandon the capacities they have built over the past two years.

WHO continues to support countries with the tools they need.

One of those tools is Go.Data, an application developed by WHO and partners for contact tracing and data management that helps responders track outbreaks in real-time.

Go.Data is free, mobile-friendly, can be used offline and is easily adapted to different outbreaks and locations.

It was first used during outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, and diphtheria in Bangladesh.

When the pandemic struck, many countries realised that older contact tracing methods were not fit for purpose.

Today, 65 countries have used Go.Data. It's a good example of an aspect of the COVID response that will now strengthen health systems.

For example, Brazil has used it for COVID, and is now also using it to track measles.

Now to Ukraine.

It’s now one month since the Russian Federation invasion of Ukraine began. Almost 10 million people, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population, have now been forcibly displaced.

The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in many parts of the country, and is critical in the Mariupol and Bucha districts.

The disruption to services and supplies throughout Ukraine is posing an extreme risk to people with cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV and TB, which are among the country’s leading causes of mortality.

Displacement, poor shelter, and overcrowded living conditions caused by the conflict are also increasing the risk of diseases such as measles, pneumonia and polio, as well as COVID-19.

So far, WHO has delivered about 150 metric tonnes of medical supplies.

We have established supply lines from our warehouse in Lviv to many cities in Ukraine, but access to many parts of the country remains blocked.

A humanitarian convoy to Mariupol was not able to be dispatched due to insecurity.

We continue facing serious cash-flow constraints in our ability to deliver life-saving support.

So far, WHO has received just 9.6 million US dollars against our appeal for 57.5 million dollars over the next three months.

We thank Norway, Switzerland and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund for their generosity, but we continue to face a huge funding gap that prevents us from delivering urgently needed medical supplies.

We call on donors to quickly address these urgent needs.

WHO has now verified 64 attacks on health care since the start of the war, and we are in the process of verifying further attacks.

Attacks on health must stop. Health systems, facilities and health workers are not – and should never be – a target.

We also have concerns around the integrity and safe operation of nuclear and chemical facilities.

WHO is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and we continue to call on all sides to minimise the risk of a nuclear or chemical accident, which could have catastrophic consequences for human health.

We continue to call on the Russian Federation to stop the war.

Although Ukraine is rightly the focus of the world’s attention, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the many other crises in which people are suffering.

Last week, I spoke about the humanitarian disaster in Tigray, and that WHO was still waiting for permission to send an additional 95 metric tonnes of medical supplies.

Since then, permission has been granted. If we can deliver these supplies safely, they will help people in desperate need, but much more is needed.

So far, only 4% of the needs for health supplies have been delivered to Tigray. That is insignificant.

The region has been under siege for almost 500 days, with dire shortages of fuel and food. People are starving to death. Actually, giving them food is more important than medicine.

We continue to call on Ethiopia and Eritrea to end the blockade.

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Earlier this week, I had the honour of attending the Guinea Worm Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Although it’s largely unknown in high-income countries, Guinea worm has plagued people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia for millennia.

But thanks to a partnership between WHO, the Carter Center and other partners, the eradication of this ancient disease is now within sight.

In the 1980s there were an estimated 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm disease globally. Last year, there were just 15 cases.

Today, Guinea worm remains endemic in just five African countries.

At the Guinea Worm Summit in Abu Dhabi this week, Ministers of Health from those countries came together to commit to taking the action needed to eradicate Guinea worm by 2030.

Finally, tomorrow is World TB Day.

Tuberculosis kills more than 1.5 million people each year.

Ending this debilitating disease remains a priority for WHO, and in recent years, we have made encouraging progress.

More than 66 million people received access to TB services since the year 2000.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to disruptions that reversed years of progress. And the war in Ukraine is also jeopardising progress in that country.

For the first time in over a decade, WHO has reported an increase in TB deaths.

This is a very dangerous trend that we must arrest. We call on all countries to invest in expanding access to effective tools against tuberculosis, and in new tools to End TB.

Christian, back to you.

Source: World Health Organization