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World Health Organization Executive Board adopts resolution on palliative care

23 January 2014

The Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted a resolution on palliative care that will be useful for palliative care advocates in their home countries to advocate for palliative care.

For the first time, a stand-alone resolution on palliative care was on the agenda of the World Health Organization’s Executive Board. The Board considered a report by the WHO secretariat on palliative care, before adopting the resolution: ‘Strengthening of palliative care as a component of integrated treatment within the continuum of care’ to be referred to the World Health Assembly in May.

The resolution urges countries to integrate palliative care into healthcare systems, to improve training for healthcare workers, and to ensure that relevant medicines, including strong pain medicines, are available to patients. It also urges WHO to increase its technical assistance to member countries on the development of palliative care services.

Dr Emmanuel Luyirika, Trustee of the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance and Chief Executive Officer of the African Palliative Care Association, addressed the Executive Board of the World Health Organization ahead of their deliberations on the resolution. He said the following:

“Madame Chair, Director General, ladies and gentleman, thank you for the opportunity to make this statement on behalf of Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance, African Palliative Care Association, and palliative care associations worldwide. Today is a momentous day: It is the first time in the history of WHO’s Executive Board that palliative care is on the board’s agenda as a stand-alone item. Today’s discussion is recognition of the growing importance of this health service.

We welcome the WHO secretariat’s report, which correctly describes palliative care as an essential health service that cuts across disease groups. The report estimates that a minimum of 40 million people worldwide require palliative care annually. Most are older persons although at least 6% are children. 80% of the need is in the developing world. As the report states, the need for palliative care will grow in decades to come.

More detailed data will be published next week in a joint WHO/WPCA Atlas of Palliative Care at the End of Life.

Although palliative care services can be implemented at relatively low cost, less than 10% of the need is currently being met. The barriers to palliative care are well known: A lack of access to essential medicines for severe pain and other symptoms; a lack of education at all levels of professional training; a lack of resources to implement palliative care and lack of policies that integrate it into national healthcare systems.

As an African physician who has traveled all over the sub-continent, I have seen up close how many people with chronic illnesses suffer unnecessarily from pain and other symptoms that could easily be relieved. The secretariat’s report, this discussion and the draft resolution that has been developed under Panama’s leadership provide a unique opportunity to tear down these barriers and put an end to this unnecessary suffering.”

Commenting on the significance of the adoption of the resolution, Dr Stephen Connor, WPCA Senior Fellow and co-editor of the forthcoming Global Atlas, said: “This is a hugely significant event for palliative care advocates, workers, patients and families worldwide. WHO has affirmed that palliative care is needed for people suffering from many communicable and non-communicable diseases and calls on member states develop policies, multi-level education, essential medicines access and adequate funding for palliative care. Also that WHO includes palliative care in health system plans and that evidence based guidelines be developed. This is historic for our field.”

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