Don’t let smoking steal life’s breathtaking moments, urges UN health agency

29 May 2019
WHO
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that tobacco use claims about eight million lives a year. (file)

Tobacco use continues to claim around eight million lives a year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday, in a call for faster action from governments to tackle smoking and the “enormous” health, social, environmental and economic costs it entails.

Ahead of World No Tobacco Day, marked on Friday, 31 May, WHO’s Dr Vinayak Prasad, acting Director, Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, highlighted the damage that tobacco causes to the lungs of smokers and non-smokers alike.

He warned that 3.3 million tobacco-related deaths – more than 40 per cent of the total – come from lung diseases, such as cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and tuberculosis.

“We want to highlight the huge scale of tobacco-related lung diseases,” he told journalists in Geneva. “Out of that 3.3 (million), about half a million people are those who are exposed to second-hand smoke and die from it…Amongst children, less than five years old, 60,000 children die every year from second-hand smoke – these are all low respiratory-tract infections.”

In just a single lungful of tobacco smoke, WHO insists that the hundreds of toxins contained in it “begin damaging the lungs”. This is because when smoke is inhaled, the structures that sweep mucus and dirt out of our airways are paralysed, allowing poisons in tobacco smoke to make their way into the lungs more easily.

The result of this is reduced lung function and breathlessness, owing to swollen airways and a build-up of mucus, WHO says, adding that these initial symptoms “are just part of the damage” that tobacco does to the lungs.

Governments ‘lagging behind’ their commitments

Although the percentage of people using tobacco globally has declined in recent decades – from 27 per cent in 2000, to 20 per cent in 2016 – WHO insists that governments are “lagging behind” their commitments to reduce tobacco use by 30 per cent by 2025.

To counter this, the UN agency is calling for quicker implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which provides practical advice on how to implement tobacco control measures covering all sectors of government.

The Convention highlights the need for greater public awareness strategies, such as creating smoke-free indoor public spaces, workplaces and public transport, along with banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and significantly increasing taxes on tobacco products, which should be sold with graphic health warnings.

In parallel to these activities, WHO’s advice remains that it’s never too late to quit smoking, as lung function improves within two weeks of stopping.

“Quitting tobacco use has the potential to reverse some, but not all, of the damage done by tobacco smoke to the lungs,” WHO says. “Quitting as soon as possible is therefore essential to prevent the onset of chronic lung disease, which is potentially irreversible once it has developed.”

To help people who want to quit, WHO also recommends the implementation of a toll-free ‘quitline’ service which offers behavioural counselling to callers, helping to boost quit rates by as much as four per cent. Mobile phone-based support for people who want to quit has also proved successful, the UN agency maintains.

These include WHO’s “Be He@lthy, Be Mobile” cessation programme – in association with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – which offers personalized support through mobile text messaging.

“These programmes help tobacco users to quit and are efficient and cost-effective,” WHO says, noting that in India, the programme achieved a self-reported 19 per cent quit rate after four to six months, compared with a baseline population quit rate, of five per cent.

The programme has been implemented in Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, India, the Philippines and Tunisia, and can be rolled out elsewhere, WHO says.

Asia-Pacific ‘regional parliament’ underway to advance equality, empowerment, for more than four billion citizens

The top United Nations body in the Asia-Pacific region opened its annual session this week, calling for greater empowerment of disadvantaged and marginalized groups if the region is to achieve the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and fulfill its promise to leave no one behind.

29 May 2019

According to a study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), forming the basis for intergovernmental discussions, while the benefits of economic growth and social progress have reached rural areas, persons with disabilities and women in many countries, the divide between the haves and the have-nots, is widening.

“In recent decades, quality of life has improved for most people in the region, yet, growing inequalities present a threat to further advances”, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a video message for Monday’s opening session in Bangkok, Thailand. “The challenge is to ensure that socio-economic progress reaches those left behind,” he added.

Recalling his recent visit to the South Pacific, where he saw the “brutal” impact of the global “climate emergency”, Mr. Guterres called on countries to redouble efforts to combat climate change in Asia and the Pacific. “This is a battle we can and must win,” he underscored.

Informally dubbed the “parliament” of the Asia-Pacific region, ESCAP – the UN’s socio-economic development arm for the area, which is home to more than 4 billion people, or nearly two-thirds of the world population – is a forum for Governments and other stakeholders to discuss key sustainable and inclusive development issues.

Established in 1947, it comprises 53 Member States and 9 associate members, stretching from the Pacific island of Tuvalu in the east, to Turkey in the west, and Russia in the north, to New Zealand in the south.

‘Opportunity’ to reaffirm ‘shared responsibility’

Addressing the opening session, Armida Alisjahbana, the Executive Secretary of ESCAP, urged countries to build on past successes and shape future priorities.

“Since this Commission first met in 1947, our countries have travelled a long journey,” she said, noting that many consider Asia-Pacific region as the “engine” of the world economy.

“We have yet more to offer. We can provide the global leadership to collectively achieve a transformed and resilient society in our region [and] respond to challenges that transcend borders and accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

In her policy statement, Ms. Alisjahbana outlined five key areas central to achieving that transformation: strengthening social protection; strengthening resilience to international trade tensions; fighting environmental degradation; improving resilience against disasters; and “unleashing” the potential of new technologies as a “force for good”.

“I am committed to working with all Member States to achieve transformed and resilient societies in our region. The evidence indicates we can be more effective if we empower citizens to support this transformation”, she concluded.

The opening session also heard a special address by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand – a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the empowerment of children through education, as well as an FAO Goodwill Ambassador for zero hunger – in which she highlighted the importance of integrated and people-centred approach to development and that it should endure.

Development work should integrate dimensions and issues including healthcare, education and employment, she said, adding that “development work should not last only a few years but go on as long as possible.”

Mongolian Foreign Minister elected Chair

Also on Monday, the Commission elected Damdin Tsogtbaatar, the Foreign Minister of Mongolia, as Chair of its 75th session.

In a speech following his election, Mr. Tsogtbaatar reiterated the importance of sustainable development, underscoring that the session is an “opportunity to accelerate the pace of implementation, shape policies and integrate the national strategies to reduce gap between rich and poor and threats from climate change.”

The opening day also saw ESCAP Executive Secretary Ms. Alisjahbana sign four Memoranda of Understanding with the regional and global organizations on strengthening cooperation in the areas of disaster resilience, early warning systems, renewable energy, research and evidence-based policy making.

Concluding on Friday, 31 May, the seventy-fifth session of ESCAP also includes the Commission’s high-level general debate on the theme “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” the meeting of the Special Body on Least Developed, Landlocked Developing and Pacific Island Developing Countries, a roundtable discussion with sub-regional organizations in the Asia-Pacific region, and a number of side events hosted by UN Member States and partner organizations.

 

Artificial intelligence summit focuses on fighting hunger, climate crisis and transition to ‘smart sustainable cities’

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is at the forefront of fighting hunger, mitigating the climate crisis and facilitating “the transition to smart sustainable cities”, said the chief of the UN agency which specializes in information and communication technologies, Houlin Zhao, kicking off the third AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva.

28 May 2019

“This summit is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on artificial intelligence”, explained the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on Tuesday, adding that it “also raises complex questions about privacy and trust and poses other challenges, from job displacement and potential bias in algorithms, to autonomous weapons and social manipulation”.

More than 2,000 participants from over 120 countries joined AI leaders and humanitarian actors to highlight its potential for advancing education, healthcare and wellbeing, social and economic equality and space research.

Unable to attend in person, Secretary-General António Guterres sent a message lauding “the promise” of AI while also warning against its potential dangers.

” Deliver on the promise of technological advances and harness them for the common good –UN chief Guterres”

“If we are to harness the benefits of artificial intelligence and address the risks, we must all work together – Governments, industry, academia and civil society – to develop the frameworks and systems that enable responsible innovation”, he said. “These systems must be nimble and adaptable, capable of developing norms and self-regulation standards alongside legally binding laws and instruments when needed, as in the case of lethal autonomous weapons”.

Noting that the UN is “well placed” as a forum on “how best to guide progress to better serve humanity,” Mr. Guterres underscored that “we must seize the moment, in partnership, to deliver on the promise of technological advances and harness them for the common good”.

In his opening address, Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) spelled out that climate change is accentuating the need for tailored information to improve resilience to extreme weather events.

“WMO deals with big data every day, running a 24/7 operational prediction system based on a huge amount of data gathered around the world,” he said, identifying AI as a potentially valuable tool to help meet this challenge.

Guided by its inter-disciplinary audience, this year’s summit aims to generate ‘AI for Good’ projects and ensure that associated technologies will be developed safely, allowing equal access for all.

Francis Gurry, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) said that 340,000 AI patent applications have been filed since the 1950s: “Artificial intelligence is one of the most important of the technologies that are currently transforming our economy and society.”

He acknowledged there were pressing economic, social and ethical questions surrounding AI, saying that “we are at an extremely early stage, but the common characteristic is that the underlying technological activity…is occurring at a much more rapid speed than our capacity to formulate” responses.

Organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – in partnership with the XPRIZE Foundation, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and 37 UN entities – the summit, which will run from 28-31 May, aims to identify practical applications of AI to accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“We need to ignite a bigger conversation centered around how to use AI and data to help find scalable solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said.

It will also debate unintended consequences of the AI revolution, and propose actions for high-potential solutions in achieving global scale, along with a so-called “learning day” to offer an audience with leading AI experts and educators.

“By bringing together AI technologists with leaders in government, industry, and humanitarian initiatives, new ways to apply AI to pressing world challenges are imagined and realized,” stressed Vicki L. Hanson, ACM CEO.

What is clear to ITU chief Zhao is that “no one nation, no one organization, no one company and no one community can meet these challenges alone”.

“The path to a transformative but also a safe, trusted and inclusive AI will require unprecedented collaboration between government, industry, academia and civil society”, he concluded.

DR Congo: Strengthened effort against Ebola is paying off, but insecurity still major constraint – UN health agency

Although the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continues to make headway thanks to the determination of health workers on the ground, insecurity is still hampering the response, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday. This has led the UN to establish a new coordination structure in the hopes that access to at-risk areas can be improved.

28 May 2019

“We are seeing a dramatic increase over the past few months in the number of security incidents in the area of North Kivu, which lies at the epicentre of this ebola outbreak,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, to journalists in Geneva as she recalled the brutal killing of a WHO colleague in mid-April.

She added that on Saturday, another attack took place during which another health worker was killed.

Insecurity equals lack of access

So far, in 2019, there have been 174 attacks against health care facilities or workers. That’s a three-fold increase compared to the number of attacks that took place during the previous five-month period (August through December 2018).

“Insecurity really is what is making the response to this Ebola outbreak so challenging and also so unpredictable,” she insisted, adding. “And this insecurity leads to a lack of access and that is really what is driving the increase in cases. When the response can’t reach people, they don’t get the chance to be vaccinated or to receive life-saving treatments if they do fall ill.”

Currently, the DRC’s worst ever outbreak of the deadly virus has seen 1,920 Ebola cases overall, including 1,281 deaths. Despite the risks, the more than 700 workers deployed by WHO remain in the area working alongside other health teams providing care.

“This Ebola response is one of the most complex health emergencies the world has faced,” said Dr. Moeti, explaining that “the authority of the Government is not strong, and what further complicates the situation is that there are many belligerents and armed groups and parties, and it’s not always clear under whose leadership they are operating”.

A new UN coordinating structure

To strengthen the coordination of the response and “create a much more enabling environment”, this week, the Deputy head of the DRC peacekeeping mission MONUSCO, David Gressly – newly appointed UN Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator – will be arriving in the city of Butembo, at the epicentre of the outbreak. Among several other key objectives, his role will be to help strengthen the DRC Government’s engagement around security, in a bid to reconcile various warring parties in the area.

In parallel, a scale-up of operations in the region from health and humanitarian organizations is also expected.

“I’m hopeful that this new structure will bring the much-needed stability, safety and clarity, and enable the response to proceed,” said Dr. Moeti.

‘Encouraging signs’

To date, more than 500 people have survived thanks to adequate care. In particular, transmissions in medical centres (“nosocomial transmissions”), which represented 35 per cent of all transmissions just a few weeks ago, which are now down to 5 per cent.

“That number is still too high, we still want to reach for zero,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, chief of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

Enhanced community engagement efforts continue to be put in place with 21 community Ebola committees in place so far, and vaccinations are also ongoing thanks to pop-up centres. Currently, 95 per cent of people offered vaccinations are accepting them and 90 per cent of families are agreeing to “safe and dignified burials”.

Dr. Ryan also explained that efforts in improving the surveillance and tracing of cases are also showing progress with 1,400 alerts per day on average, a number that was only half of that six weeks ago. The number of samples taken daily for laboratory analysis is also increasing steadily with the proportion of positive cases decreasing.

In another “encouraging sign”, Monday was “the first day in a very long time that we had zero positive cases among community deaths”, said Dr. Ryan, as he gave credit to the “brave frontline workers who risk their lives every day to do this work and to our communities who are very much engaged and participating in the response.”