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September 28, 2016

United Nations General Assembly 2016

As the UN General Assembly meeting drew to a close on Monday, I reflected on how our work continues to grow in relevance to the overall well being of people throughout the world.

While the Summit on Refugees and Migrants, and resulting New York Declaration, took center stage at this year’s Assembly, the weeklong general session focused on the ongoing implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In his address to the General Assembly last Tuesday, outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded us that the Global Goals, or SDGs, offer a path to a better future. The same day, Uruguay’s President Tabaré Vazquez made clear in his address to the General Assembly that unless we fight against non-communicable diseases and the main risk factors associated with them—smoking, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle—the development goal of poverty reduction, a cornerstone of improving global health, will elude us.

“Poverty exposes people to behavioral risk factors of non-communicable diseases and in turn, these diseases tend to make poverty even worse,” he said.

By enacting strong tobacco control legislation in spite of legal challenges from the tobacco industry, Uruguay’s leadership on this issue has been heralded around the world.  It has also illuminated the economic burden of smoking in Latin America: the direct cost of smoking to health systems there is estimated to be US $33 billion, while direct and indirect costs are estimated to be US $286 billion.

These numbers illustrate the relationship between public health and economic stability.

Staying focused on the achievement of the health targets outlined in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which were adopted one year ago at the 2015 General Assembly, will bring us closer to achieving all of the Global Goals. We must keep this message clear and prominent as our new UN leadership is announced in the coming weeks.

Another peril also received the attention it deserves. Last Wednesday’s high-level meeting on anti-microbial resistance (AMR) was only the fourth time in the UN’s history (after HIV and Ebola, and non-communicable disease) that a health issue featured so prominently at the General Assembly. This is because dangerous infections are increasingly untreatable due to an increase in resistance to medicines—such as antibiotics—that can cure them. Diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia from staph and strep bacteria, gonorrhea and salmonella have become especially drug resistant. Left unchecked, AMR will impact global health, security and economic growth.

As a result of this meeting on AMR, heads of state have, for the first time, committed to a coordinated set of solutions to the increasing threat of AMR. Among them, countries called for better use of existing, cost-effective tools for preventing infections in humans and animals.

These include systems to ensure more appropriate use of existing and new antibiotics and incentives for investment in research and development of new, effective and affordable medicines, rapid diagnostic tests, and other important therapies to replace those that are losing their power.

This leadership echoes some of the work we have been carrying out in TB for a decade, and I’m proud that we’ve invested ourselves and made great strides in TB control and treatment. Global leadership on AMR will only bolster our efforts.

In the midst of the General Assembly last week, an important funding announcement was made—a donation of $3 billion by philanthropists Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. With the goal of “curing, preventing and managing all disease in our children’s lifetime,” the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is quite ambitious. I’m impressed by the emphasis on prevention and management of disease in their announcement, with a large portion of their gift going to much-needed scientific and medical research.

More funding—both public and private—is needed for building resilient and sustainable systems for health. The world will be vastly better off if more countries achieve universal health coverage, and prevent not only infectious disease, but non-communicable diseases as well, which remain sorely unaddressed and underfunded in many countries.

Our global health challenges loom large, but the international leadership to solve them is increasing. As Ban Ki-moon reminded us: “We have the potential to close the gap between rich and poor.” Improving global health is one of the most effective ways of doing so.

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