GENEVA, Switzerland, May 20, 2014 (ENS) – “Our planet, our planet, is losing its capacity to sustain human life in good health,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization warned Monday at the opening session of the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva.

“Signals about what human activities have done to the environment are becoming increasingly shrill,” said Dr. Chan, citing the latest assessment from the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in March after seven years of study.

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World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan addresses the 67th World Health Assembly, May 19, 2014 (Screengrab from video courtesy WHO)

The UN-backed panel “issued its most disturbing report to date, with a strong focus on the consequences for health,” said Dr. Chan.

Also in March, the World Health Organization, WHO, revised its estimates of the health effects of air pollution upwards.

In 2012, exposure to air pollution killed around seven million people worldwide, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, Chan told the more than 3,000 delegates from around the world.

“These estimates coincided with crippling episodes of air pollution in several parts of the world,” she said.

Environmental destruction is allowing four serious microbial diseases to emerge and spread, said Chan.

“Changes in the way humanity inhabits the planet have given the volatile microbial world multiple new opportunities to exploit. Confirmation of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea brought to four the number of severe emerging viruses that are currently circulating, including the H5N1 and H7N9 avian influenza viruses and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus.”

“For communicable diseases, one of the most alarming crises is the rise of antimicrobial resistance, which WHO documented in a report last month,” Dr. Chan told the delegates. “This is a crisis that now affects every region of the world, and it is only getting worse.”

Many delegates focused on the links between climate and health in the Health Assembly’s opening plenary debate, particularly the impact of climate on social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.

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Air pollution in Shantou, China (Photo by Peg McGlinch)

The World Health Assembly, the world’s health policy-making body, opened its 67th session Monday with the election of Dr. Roberto Tomas Morales Ojeda, Cuba’s Minister of Public Health, as its new president. Five vice-presidents were appointed from Bahrain, Congo, Fiji, Lithuania, and Sri Lanka, representing their respective regions.

Today, Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, the First Lady of Zambia; Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were guest speakers at the World Health Assembly.

Gates urged delegates to endorse the first global action plan to end newborn deaths. Health officials agree that newborn deaths are preventable, yet nearly three million babies every year die within their first 28 days of life. WHO says 2.6 million babies are stillborn, and more than one million of those deaths occur during labor.

Dr. Kaseba-Sata, a former gynecologist, deplored the prevalence of violence against women and girls and the extent to which cases of violence remain hidden and unrecognized yet inflict great damage on the victims’ mental and physical health.

The 2014 World Cancer Report, issued by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, shows that the number of new cancer cases has reached an all-time high and is projected to continue to rise. Estimates for 2010 indicate that cancer cost the world economy nearly $1.2 trillion.

Dr. Chan warned, “Developing countries now account for around 70 percent of all cancer deaths. Many of these people die without treatment, not even pain relief.”

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Air pollution from coal processing, India (Photo by Centre for Science and Environment)

Saying that, “No country anywhere, no matter how rich, can treat its way out of the cancer crisis,” the world’s leading public health professional called for “much greater commitment to prevention” of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lung diseases

In her address Dr. Chan expressed her concern about the increase worldwide of childhood obesity, with numbers climbing fastest in developing countries. “As the 2014 World Health Statistics report bluntly states, ‘Our children are getting fatter,'” she said. “Parts of the world are quite literally eating themselves to death. Other parts starve.”

To gather the best possible advice on dealing with this crisis, Dr. Chan announced that she has established a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity to produce a consensus report on which approaches are likely to be most effective.

Nearly extinct just two years ago, the poliovirus is again spreading across the world, Dr. Chan warned, fostered by, “Armed conflict that flies in the face of international humanitarian law. Civil unrest. Migrant populations. Weak border controls. Poor routine immunization coverage. Bans on vaccination by militant groups. And the targeted killing of polio workers.”

Globally, public health is being shaped by some “universal and ominous trends,” she said, particularly poverty.

“In just the past few months, social inequalities, within and between countries, have attracted the attention and deep concern of leading economists and development banks. They have issued a spate of warnings about the disruptive effects of rising inequality and economic exclusion on social cohesion and stability, about the damage done to economies and the risks to future prosperity,” said Dr. Chan.

“Wealth does not trickle down,” she declared. “Some economists argue that the past practice of equating growth in GDP with overall progress is outmoded. These views carry weight and should be taken seriously.”

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Homeless woman Arcadia, Florida (Photo by cbake777)

Since the start of this century, the poverty map has changed, Chan pointed out, with roughly 70 percent of the world’s poor living in middle-income countries. As more countries graduate to middle-income status, they can no longer qualify for help with the price of medicines, so the poor living in these countries are often left to do without medicines. WHO helps by negotiating concessional prices for medicines, said Dr. Chan.

“We learned that markets cannot sell something to people who cannot pay,” she said. “Childhood immunization programmes deliver vaccines at no cost to recipients. The massive free distribution of bednets coincided with dramatic drops in malaria cases and deaths.”

Calling the World Bank “a welcome partner” in helping countries make their health care more inclusive, Dr. Chan said, “The bottom billion receive medicines for neglected tropical diseases at no cost. Universal health coverage goes hand-in-hand with financial risk protection, especially for the poor.”

“But we also learned that policies matter as much as money,” she said. “Countries with the same level of resources achieve strikingly different health outcomes.” When a government’s policies support health care equity, they “make the difference,” she said.

For the post-2015 agenda, Dr. Chan sees “ambitious yet feasible goals” to end preventable maternal, neonatal, and childhood deaths, eliminate a large number of the neglected tropical diseases and end the tuberculosis epidemic.