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WHO chief: 'Pandemic will not magically disappear'

The World Health Organization's governing body opened its weeklong annual meeting against a backdrop of financial tumoil and war in Europe.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses the World Health Assembly in Geneva (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization's governing body opened its weeklong annual meeting on Sunday against a backdrop of global financial tumoil and war in Europe, the still-dangerous COVID-19 pandemic, monkeypox and other threats.

Delegates convened for the first time in three years at the 194-nation World Health Assembly, where WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and heads of state set the tone for a somber gathering with a theme of using "health for peace."

WHO staff have their hands full responding to the pandemic, now in its third year, and to Ebola outbreaks in Congo, new cases of monkeypox and hepatitis, and complex humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

"More than two years into the most severe health crisis in a century, where do we stand? More than 6 million COVID-19 deaths have been reported to WHO. But as you know, our new estimates of excess mortality are much higher — almost 15 million deaths," Tedros said in his opening remarks. "We face a formidable convergence of disease, drought, famine and war, fueled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry."

Reported COVID-19 deaths are rising in Africa, which has the lowest vaccination coverage, and reported cases are growing in almost 70 countries around the world despite a fall in testing rates, according to WHO figures, which found only 57 mostly wealthy nations have vaccination rates above 70%.

'A formidable convergence'

Israel’s first reported case of monkeypox in a man who returned from overseas coincided with the start of the assembly, prompting renewed global concerns about the robustness of nations' healthcare systems and their pandemic preparedness.

Until now, monkeypox was found largely in parts of central and western African nations where it is endemic. WHO officials say the reported cases have no established travel links to those endemic areas, and the latest available evidence suggests people most at risk are those who had close physical contact with someone with monkeypox while they were symptomatic.

As of Saturday, there have been 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox reported to WHO in 12 nations: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States.

Meeting at the United Nations' European headquarters in the Palais des Nations, delegates prepared to take up issues such as universal health coverage, polio eradication, non-communicable diseases, a proposed global pandemic treaty, and efforts to revise the International Health Regulations, a legally binding agreement that requires all countries to be able to accurately detect and respond to public health emergencies.

The assembly also is expected to appoint Tedros to a second five-year term at the helm of the U.N. health agency. Tedros emphasized the pandemic is far from over, but science has to tools to end it. "So is it over? No, it’s most certainly not over. I know that’s not the message you want to hear, and it’s definitely not the message I want to deliver," he said.

"There’s no question we have made progress, of course we have: 60% of the world’s population is vaccinated, helping to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, allowing health systems to cope, and societies to reopen. But it’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere," said Tedros. "The pandemic will not magically disappear. But we can end it. We have the knowledge. We have the tools. Science has given us the upper hand."