Progress and missed opportunities at World Health Congress

As a medical professional attending the World Congress on Publich Health, I was keen to see how current priorities would be addressed, but the clear lack of community dialogue was disappointing.

As a medical professional attending the 14th World Congress on Public Health, I was keen to see how current priorities would be addressed, but the clear lack of community dialogue was disappointing.

The event took place in Kolkata, India from 11-15 February, attracting thousands of delegates with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. Public health associations from around the world and global health organisations from the fields of implementation, advocacy and research shared their work.

The Congress highlighted key global health priorities around both communicable and non-communicable diseases, with rich discussions on the research and funding side, as well as on how polices and government programmes are being shaped to address new challenges.

And although community involvement could have been stronger, it was heartening to see active participation from medical and public health students and researchers, which is always a positive sign towards developing a strong health advocates’ force for the future. Being in India, the event was an excellent opportunity for students from the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation to attend and present.

Balancing act

Apart from community voices, another thing missing in the Congress was clarity around its theme of ‘Healthy people, healthy environment’. The theme was too broad and could not generate enough space for discussions on specific issues. I would have liked to see some critical challenges discussed at a micro level and some doable, deliverable solutions found.

For example, HIV and TB were discussed as ongoing, chronic problems that supposedly did not require a lot of specific attention. It is understandable to focus on new communicable diseases such as Ebola and H1N1, given the current crisis in Africa and Asia. But a balancing act is required.

Both HIV and TB epidemics are large in South Asia and, with the Congress venue being in the sub-continent, the time and place were right to highlight the community-based work against HIV and TB from the region. But overall, the civil society participation in the event was limited and weak.

Community voices

We often talk about how community voices are not heard in larger events. While I heard some interesting stories of community-led projects from India and Bangladesh in the Congress, more space for such voices is urgently required – and they should be included in larger, plenary sessions. The impact of community leaders speaking at larger forums can trigger action and inspire replication.

As one of the largest world health events, it is also crucial it should look at cross cutting issues and develop some synergies between different sectors. For example, there was very little on important health-related topics such as food security, disaster risk reduction, climate change and gender, to name a few. Inclusion of these topics would have made discussions more meaningful.

I am keen to be involved in the Congress in future. I would, however, hope that the event is organised through ground level dialogues with communities and organisations leading to a more participatory design of the event. The World Health Congress would do well in future to find more common ground between academia and action groups.

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