Young Leaders take on 75th World Health Assembly

This year, a few of our Young Leaders represented NCD Child at the Seventy-fifth World Health Assembly(WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. The annual health assembly brought about opportunities for our Young Leaders to engage with key global health stakeholders, participate in high-level discussions and build networks with others working in the global non-communicable diseases (NCDs) space.

Hear from some of our Young Leaders on their experience at the Seventy-fifth WHA and learn how they represented young people in the fight against NCDs.

Youth participation: Essential to curve and prevent NCDs– Ana Larrañaga

As a young nutritionist I was accustomed for many years to being on the “passive” side of food policy and public health discussions. That is, to be part of an audience. Always listening, always taking notes and always attentive to the different narratives, but rarely raising my voice and taking up space. That was until I started to get more and more involved with the work of civil society organizations in Mexico. That was how I first understood that the lack of experience that is usually used as an argument to keep youth out of the discussions did not make me less valuable than other actors with a lifetime of experience. I realized that I was capable of arguing in favour of healthy environments with the same coherence as people with more experience than me, and moreover, doing so awakened in me a sense of confidence in my own abilities.

Working for the adoption of healthy food policies in my country, I was also able to witness a phenomenon that has shaped my interests forever and that I am now eager to investigate and put on the radar of all decision makers: the lobbying of the ultra-processed food and beverage industries. These industries deploy a series of efforts to evade at all costs any regulation that impacts their business model (which usually includes the promotion of their products to children and adolescents, despite the damage this may cause to their health).

I have witnessed how the lobbyists of multinational soft drink industries target the legislators of the health commissions in my country. I have read the policy briefs they hand out, I have listened to their arguments over and over again in forums, and it never ceases to amaze me the magnitude of the economic and political power with which they shape policy. After watching these scenes, there was no doubt in my mind: we young people are trying to thrive in a world with profound power imbalances. In other words; High-level decision-making spaces in many countries are occupied by people whose interests are focused on profit generation and wealth accumulation, leaving the well-being and health of the youngest people aside.

It would be easy to only feel hopeless in this situation, however during WHA75 I was able to meet and connect with other young leaders from different countries, I was able to participate in forums where my voice was heard by international audiences, and I was able to see them doing the same. After this, I am convinced of the enormous benefits to global health of ensuring the inclusion of young voices in these conversations that will undoubtedly impact our future and that of generations to come. We, young people, are a fundamental part of the mechanisms to generate a balance in decision making and protect the health of the population. I would encourage all countries and organizations to reach out to young people in their communities, professionals, students, patients or consumers. We all have something valuable to contribute!

75th World Health Assembly – Health for Peace, Peace for Health– by Alex Kwok

June 9th, 2022 – Just over a week ago, I was in Geneva to attend the 75th World Health Assembly (WHA75) alongside fellow NCD Child Young Leaders. This year’s WHA was in-person for the first time since COVID-19, convening the world’s global health experts, country delegates, and NGO leaders to agree on the priorities of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the year. Under the theme of “Health for Peace, Peace for Health”, it was a fitting overarching topic in the midst of a raging war in Ukraine and COVID-19 still lingering. Among the WHA agenda items laid out by the WHO executive board, we saw the biggest NCD agenda ever brought forward to WHA in history. And rightly so as evidence shows people living with NCDs have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease and more likely to die from COVID-19.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we did not have access to the Palais des Nations where official deliberations of WHA agenda items took place. However, there were many side events happening throughout the city outside the Palais that everyday was packed with attending different events. Many of the side events made aware to us were shared through NCD Alliance and captured a wide range of NCD topics. While I was surrounded by people working in the NCD space, it was difficult to discover side events not centered around NCD. For example, I had also wanted to learn about new developments in digital health and technology, but no such events were published online. It was only after the assembly that I found out from secondary connections on social media that there were such side events. It also left me wondering if side events are operating within their silos despite a call for a multi-sectoral approach to co-designing health solutions.

As I reflect on all the side events I attended at WHA, I am reminded of the power of storytelling. The most powerful message that resonated with me came from personal lived experiences. In a session hosted by the World Heart Federation, Sophie Manoy (NCD Child Young Leader) and Anu Gomanju (NCD Advocate) talked about their experience as patients in the context of the patient-doctor relationship and the need for doctors to adopt an empathy approach. Their lived experiences conveyed through storytelling was powerful precisely because it’s personal and brings the issue down to a relatable level. If research data gets people’s attention, then storytelling of lived experiences reaches into people’s humanity to take action. I am also reminded of my work in clinical research and the importance of co-designing research interventions alongside patient partners to ensure research outcomes are contextually relevant to their realities. Meaningful engagement of patients starts with active listening on a leveled playing field, free from the influence of power imbalance.

My experience at the WHA75 had been insightful, thought-provoking, and inspirational. NCD Child had been incredibly supportive making space and facilitating connections for young leaders working in NCDs. Some of the most thought-provoking moments were listening to the incredible work of the people I met and their aspirations. Addressing NCD challenges requires working with people across sectors and I feel having dialogues with those outside your expertise are invaluable to finding synergies to accelerate progress toward health for all.

75th World Health Assembly – by Sophie Manoy

I attended the 75th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland as a member of the NCD Child Young Leaders Program. As the annual meeting of the key decision-making body for the World Health Organisation (WHO), attending the WHA provided an opportunity to observe the global health agenda, better understand the role that young people can play in global health advocacy and to build networks with others working towards the united goal of better health for all.

We attended multiple WHA side events where the youth voice was welcomed and encouraged. These events provided opportunities to raise advocacy priorities and bring youth perspective to the table through civil society organisations. There was opportunity to observe the complex interplay of political influence with the power of non-state actors in health advocacy and the role of different stakeholders working collaboratively towards a common goal. We observed a shift towards a focus on more concise and effective goals and targets in making gains in global health with strong mechanisms for accountability. Additionally, the importance of the removal of industry influence on decision-making was a united message across events.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have increasing recognition as a core component of the global health agenda and multi-sector collaboration and the translation of global policy into local action is vital in moving forward in the prevention and control of NCDs. The youth voice was welcomed in discussing barriers and challenges in the prevention of NCDs and a common thread of discussion across events was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on progress in this area. The importance of the concept of health in all policies was highlighted at the World Health Summit and for myself, participating on a panel at the World Health Summit was one of my personal highlights with the opportunity for professional development and networking.

We had the opportunity to gather feedback from relevant experts on our own individual advocacy interests and to learn from leaders within the WHO such as Dr Bente Mikkelsen and Dr Guy Fones. This was another personal highlight, in addition to meeting the other motivated Young Leaders participating in the program. Hearing the inspiration behind the careers and passions of the other Young Leaders was uplifting and it was motivating to be able to share goals, participate in group discussions and inspire each other as the next generation of change-makers.

Young people need to be involved in decisions that impact on their health and need to be included in ongoing dialogue beyond the WHA, including in the lead up to the High-Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of NCDs in 2025. Opening the door to young people at these forums is crucial for representation of the voice of the next generation.  

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