Advocacy at the World Health Assembly: our mission to accelerate cancer prevention efforts

Kendra Chow at the World Health Assembly

Kendra Chow and Dr Giota Mitrou flew to Geneva to represent World Cancer Research Fund International among the world’s health leaders as they discussed global public health priorities.

Kendra and Giota at the World Health AssemblyOur mission is clear: to make cancer prevention a core priority for all governments worldwide. We’ve been participating in the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) at the World Health Organization (WHO) and to make sure our voice was heard, we analysed the bumper week-long agenda to see where we could include our key asks to advance action on cancer prevention. However, at this WHA, we were competing with the new pandemic accord – which aims to improve cooperation and preparation for when the next pandemic arises – as it had captured most attention given the tricky negotiation process.

The WHA is a key influencing space to ensure cancer prevention is a global health priority as it’s the decision-making body of the WHO. We identified 6 critical agenda items that supported cancer prevention efforts. Using these 6 items as a focus, we provided clear and achievable recommendations – or key asks – that countries can take forward. Our key asks were designed to meaningfully address modifiable risk factors for cancer – many of which also address other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as well as helping achieve other societal and environmental goals.

Our 6 focus areas

  1. Universal Health Coverage
  2. Preparation for the Fourth High-Level meeting on NCDs in 2025
  3. Social determinants of health
  4. Maternal, infant and young child nutrition
  5. Wellbeing and health promotion
  6. Draft fourteenth general programme of work, 2025-2028

Our key asks were compiled into a handy Mission Briefing (pdf), which was issued to Member State representatives. Several themes emerged from our recommendations – progress against targets was often slow and off track; member states were slow or reluctant to commit to action; financing was missing; and processes were often vulnerable to influence from industries selling unhealthy commodities. The Briefing shaped our engagement across the busy week – it provided talking points for us to share with Member States, as well as our civil society contacts.

From our conversations, many countries are very interested in advancing efforts across our Cancer Prevention Recommendations. We discussed the importance of breastfeeding with the head of the Mexican mission, and, with a representative from France’s Ministry of Health, we explained how effective promoting physical activity in primary care can be. Slovenia was also very interested in reducing alcohol intake among its population, and in taking concrete steps to reduce alcohol harms.

Blueprint for Cancer Prevention

National flags on display outside the World Health Assembly

We were also excited to share an early version of a new advocacy tool we have under development. Our Blueprint for Cancer Prevention summarises the links between our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, the types of cancer they protect against, and the policy actions needed to implement each Recommendation. For example, we list 8 policy areas where action is needed to meet our Recommendation to be a healthy weight such as marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods, effective information and campaigns on diet and physical activity, and active and public transport.

The Blueprint was of great interest to Member State delegates and WHO officials alike. Early feedback tells us it will be a useful tool to help give policymakers and advocates a clear path towards preventing cancer. We will be launching the Blueprint later in the year.

As part of our official relations status with the WHO, which allows us to intervene in agenda item discussions, we were able to deliver statements. Our status also allows us to speak from the floor in the meetings and co-sign statements prepared by ally organisations. We made contributions on all our 6 target agenda items.

Across Geneva, we also attended side events, including new cancer research initiatives and advances in cancer and alcohol policies. We were delighted to attend the inaugural meeting on nutrition and childhood NCDs led by Columbia University Irvin Medical Center and the International Initiative for Pediatrics and Nutrition, with support from the WHO Global Initiative for Childhood Cancer and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. This initiative is to strengthen efforts to improve services for children with cancer around the world.

Several landmark resolutions were adopted at this WHA, including climate change and health. The Draft fourteenth general programme of work, 2025–2028 (pdf) was approved by Member States, signalling an increased focus over the next 4 years on priority risk factors for NCDs, determinants of health, and climate and health – all relevant to cancer prevention. And finally, after over 2 years of negotiations, which boost international cooperation to respond to outbreaks of infectious disease. Member States also committed to finalising negotiations on the global pandemic accord within the year.

Lastly, we seeded ideas and recommendations for a High-Level Meeting on NCDs at the UN General Assembly in New York next year. We want countries to meet commitments made at previous High-Level Meetings, as well as ensure that prevention sits front and centre of the political declaration. Although the declaration won’t be legally binding, it represents the highest level of commitment of UN Member States, and builds consensus on language and approach – so its negotiation is really important to us.

Our 77th World Health Assembly in numbers

  • 6 meetings with WHO officials
  • 6 statements signed
  • 5 meetings with civil-society organisations
  • 5 days on the ground in Geneva
  • 4 new member states engaged: France, Mexico, Slovenia, Canada
  • 3 new policy briefings shared with member states and WHO officials
  • 2 World Cancer Research Fund representatives
  • 1 statement delivered on the assembly floor

All in all, it was a hectic and busy week with late nights and early mornings packed with meetings, agenda item discussions and rushed coffees at busy side events. However, it was great to fly the flag for cancer prevention and connect with others so they can wave the flag too.

> For more information about our key asks, check out our Mission Briefing