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71st World Health Assembly concludes, shedding no light upon asbestos or related diseases


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One of the world’s biggest health summits, the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA), recently concluded its annual summit in Geneva, graced by the newly appointed Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Comprising 196 countries, WHA sits at the helm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and plays a pivotal role in decision making on issues concerning health on a global scale. It was also significant that the WHA summit, which comprised of numerous rounds of discussions, did not bring the topic of asbestos or Chrysotile to light by WHO member states or other international agencies, NGOs or WHO staff. 

At the 71st WHA summit, the progress report on the Global Action Plan on Worker’s Health (2008-2017) was also not brought to notice. Only a brief mentioning was made by an ILO representative, focusing on the need to consider occupational health issues in tandem with other policies, in addition to the importance of collaborating with WHO on various issues like hazards and risks. Moreover, WHO’s General Program of Work (2019-2023) adopted by WHA last week too has made no reference with regard to workers’ health nor occupational policy. 

The Global Action Plan considers Global campaigns for elimination of asbestos-related diseases, while adopting a differentiated approach towards various forms of asbestos. During a quick debate, Committee B brought the matter of the Global Action Plan to light with a brief account. Several countries joined in for the debate, including Sierra Leone, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Comoros, United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Burkina Faso, Qatar and São Tomé and Príncipe; however, none of these countries mentioned the Global Action Plan on Worker’s Health or its progress report. 

Considering the actions taken and actions eluded by the two prominent international bodies WHA and WHO, it can be deemed that WHO is contemplating on abandoning the idea of treating chemical exposure in general, as well as asbestos exposure, as an occupational matter. In other words, WHO seems to be changing its policy direction towards asbestos.

Therefore, in future, WHO will likely regard asbestos as an ‘environmental risk’ and asbestos-related diseases as ‘environmental diseases’, in line with its ‘All Policies’ approach characterised by the inter-sectoral perspective.

Despite ‘asbestos’ and its potential health hazards becoming a heated topic splattered across all local media in recent times, the issue was not taken up for discussion during the world’s most crucial health summit, the 71st World Health Assembly. Furthermore, one of the key drivers of WHO, the Global Action Plan on Worker’s Health (2008-2017) and its progress report, which was due to be tabled for discussion, was not given the expected prominence during the one-week long debate. Instead, the matter of providing access to water and sanitation was repeatedly taken for debate, under the patronage of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the recently concluded WHA summit.  


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