From WHA54.19 to WHA66.12: Helping Children Survive and Thrive

Photo By: Johnson & Johnson

I dare say that WHA54.19 or WHA66.12 may not mean anything to many. They could be acronyms and numbers that could easily refer to a version of software. However, being the Director at Johnson & Johnson responsible for managing the donation program that brings deworming medicines to millions of children around the world, these shorthand references to World Health Assembly (WHA) resolutions are part of my vocabulary. And for more than 600 million children in underserved communities that are especially prone to those infections, these acronyms are a lifeline to the future.

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), with one of its principle functions being the adoption and issuance of global health policies on behalf of its 193 member states. The resolutions passed at their annual meetings are the bases that call the global health community to action on specific health-related issues. And in this case, WHA54.19 implores the member states and the global health community at large to adopt measures that treat and prevent parasitic worm infections.

Children are most vulnerable to disease – particularly STH infection – simply because they are children – carefree, especially when they are young. They like to play in the dirt, run around barefoot, and swim and splash in watering holes when it’s hot outside. (I cannot deny the fact that these memories of my own childhood still bring a smile to my face.)

Being denied such simple pleasures seems unfair. Yet, this is how children become infected – by running and playing barefoot in areas where adequate sanitation facilities and clean water are scarce. Worms and worm eggs enter a child’s feet and take hold in the gut, robbing them of the nutrients they need to learn and grow. Without proper nutrition, the child’s physical and cognitive development is irreversibly impaired.

WHA54.19 was adopted in 2001, setting the target of treating 75 percent of infected or at-risk children. Until 2006, there were modest advances.  Johnson & Johnson was the first pharmaceutical company to make commitments to donate Vermox®, a deworming medicine, to treat children with intestinal worms and created Children Without Worms in partnership with the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, Georgia, to administer this initiative. Through a slow but steady expansion of the program that donated medicines to treat infected children, the program also wholeheartedly embraced the integration of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) components to break the cycle of transmission.

2010 brought a critical turning point – the moment when Johnson & Johnson expanded its donation commitment from 50 million treatments to 200 million treatments as part of the MDG commitments. The momentum grew, and in 2012, as part of the London Declaration for NTDs, J&J extended the commitment through 2020.

This recent 66th World Health Assembly meeting – and the historic passage of resolution 66.12 – reinforces the global commitment to control and eliminate STH and 16 other neglected tropical diseases (NTD’s). WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan spoke passionately about the significance of this resolution and the immense size of the problem that causes suffering to more than one billion poor ”voiceless and faceless” people. She added that these diseases “cause stigma and social exclusion particularly for women and children who suffer in silence.”

But that wasn’t all. The progress report on water, sanitation, and health, presented at the WHA highlighted the need for a renewed commitment to improve access to clean water and improved sanitation to sustain positive health outcomes. This call to action on behalf of WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) is an especially important complement to breaking the cycle of STH transmission as well as control and elimination of a number of NTDs. The global community must heed the call and escalate the visibility of both of these WHA resolutions in order to bring the global health and development sectors onto the same stage.

While WHA resolution titles may seem cryptic or even wonky to some, their impact could be game-changing for an entire generation. They are rallying cries that have the potential to change the lives of almost 1 billion people around the world. It is certainly hard to keep track of the numbers and acronyms. But I know that even when all the attention they garner results in sustainable control and elimination of the NTDs, they will still be an important part of my vocabulary. 

By Bill Lin, Director, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson