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World Health Assembly Plenary Session

May 16th, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Fellow health ministers, distinguished leaders, Director-General Chan. I’m honored to have this opportunity today to address the Assembly.

A few weeks ago, many of us came together in Moscow for the 1st Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Non-Communicable Diseases.

Each year, chronic diseases kill 36 million people around the world, accounting for more than 3 out of every 5 deaths, robbing families and communities of loved ones, and costing our economies billions.

Many of these diseases like cancer, diabetes, stroke, and respiratory disease are projected to affect even more people in the years and decades to come.

In the United States, we have embarked on an ambitious agenda to shift the focus of our health care system from waiting for people to become acutely ill to investing in prevention to keep people healthy in the first place.

And we recognize that for developing countries, which have fewer resources to invest in prevention and care management and are often still combating significant rates of infectious diseases, the impact of chronic disease can be even more devastating.

Moscow was an important step in uniting the global community around this critical fight. And we look forward to continuing to share ideas and strategies as we prepare for the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on prevention and control of chronic disease.

We are only just beginning to address these diseases as a global community. But we can learn from our success working across borders in other areas such as responding to infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and even the possible threat of smallpox.

These are areas where we have made great progress, but we must remain vigilant.

We do not believe, for example, that the Assembly should set an immediate date for the destruction of the last known samples of the smallpox virus.

Today, most of the world’s population has no immunity to the disease. And it is quite possible that undisclosed or forgotten stocks of smallpox exist.

In addition, the virus’s genetic code is now available online and the technology now exists for someone with the right tools and the wrong intentions to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory

We do have effective vaccines that could be deployed to protect most Americans. But global supplies are limited.

Fortunately, work is under way to develop and test new vaccine technologies.

We are also working on developing, testing, and licensing new drugs that could control the disease’s progression and greatly reduce the risk of death in the event of an outbreak.

We should not stop now.

We have more work to do before these safe and highly effective vaccines and antiviral treatments are fully developed and approved for use. Once they are ready, we intend to share the fruits of this research with the world.

Destroying the virus now would slow our progress and could even stop it completely, leaving the world vulnerable.

As we continue to address challenges posed by threats likes these, the United States remains committed to the World Health Organization’s implementation of the International Health Regulations and efforts to better coordinate the global response to public health emergencies.

Our collective response to recent public health events, such as the 2009 influenza pandemic and recent natural disasters shows how much we can accomplish through international cooperation and collaboration pursuing common goals in the areas of public health and security.

To this end, we recognize the importance of the World Health Organization’s efforts. We must use existing opportunities and find new ones to agree on practical and meaningful steps to bring the security, health, and scientific communities closer together to address emerging threats.

Finally, we are also committed to supporting the Director-General’s agenda for reform.

In order for the WHO to remain a leader on the most pressing international issues of our time, it must be able to adapt and respond to the constantly evolving global health landscape.

I want to close by recognizing the extraordinary generosity of those nations that have welcomed and cared for the vulnerable people fleeing the conflict in Libya -- in particular Libya’s neighbors Tunisia and Egypt.

We understand that providing humanitarian service places great strain on both governments and the local population.

The United States is contributing over $53 million to help meet humanitarian needs and to assist those fleeing the violence.

The months and years ahead hold great challenges and risks for all of our nations. But they also hold enormous opportunities to advance health around the world.

By working together, we can make the most of those opportunities. I look forward to strengthening old partnerships and building new ones.

Thank you.