The World Health Organization’s Resolution on Universal Surgery and Anesthesia Access

Few people who live in developed countries like the U.S. can imagine what it’s like to need life-saving surgery and not be able to get it. 
…Or to have access to the surgeon, hospital and medical equipment needed to do the procedure but not the anesthesia to make the operation bearable. Today, the World Health Organization took steps to change that.

Last year we spoke with John Meara, D.M.D., M.D. Associate Professor of Surgery; Associate Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical Surgery about the impact surgical access had on the burden of global disease and the numbers were staggering. Meara said, “75% of the world’s population lives in low-income countries that have access to only 4% of all the surgical procedures performed in the world.” In terms of maternal health, that includes surgeries that could drastically reduce the number of women who die every year from conditions like obstructed labor and hemorrhage during or after birth. Mothers and babies’ chances of survival would be dramatically improved if we could guarantee their access to safe cesarean sections with safe anesthesia.

The G4 Alliance has been working to put these issues on the radar screen of global decisions makes and recently took a step forward by getting the World Health Assembly to officially recognize the importance of access to surgery and anesthesia. The WHO introduced resolution 68/31 on “Strengthening emergency and essential surgical care and anesthesia as a component of universal health coverage,” and this morning it was unanimously approved at the 68th World Health Assembly. They state, “This historic resolution will help open the door to national capacity building, health systems strengthening and overall greater prioritization of essential surgical and anesthesia care for those in need, often at the community and district hospital level.”

We’re encouraged that the resolution specifically notes that more than 289,000 women die every year in childbirth and that approximately a quarter of maternal deaths, as well as infant deaths and disabilities that result from obstructed labor, hemorrhage and infection could be avoided if safe surgery and anesthesia were universally available. We know it will take global leadership, like that provided by the World Health Organization and the World Health Assembly to make that happen.

Why is this resolution important? Because a resolution like this one is used by United Nations agencies to recommend, guide and implement global health policy changes. This resolution will help set the priorities, policies and planning for healthcare within each WHO Member state. We think this is an important step in the right direction.

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