Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo
Head of Caritas Internationalis Delegation in Geneva
CI Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS
The outbreak of A-H1N1 Influenza Virus (or “Swine Flu”) dominated the official and unofficial discussions at the 2009 World Health Assembly, held in Geneva on 18-22 May 2009, at which I served as a member of the Holy See Delegation as well as an observer on behalf of Caritas Internationalis. In fact, as a result of the influenza epidemic, the agenda of the Assembly was drastically reduced since Health Ministers from many countries expressed the need to spend more time at home in order to manage the impact of flu on their respective populations.
In her opening address, the Director-General of World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, made the point that, unlike avian flu virus, the new viral strain of H1N1 virus passes more easily from one person to another, spreads rapidly within a country once it establishes itself there, and increasingly has been spread to new countries.
On the “good news” side, this flu strain mainly has caused mild illness among its victims and has caused few deaths – at least up to the present time. In fact, Dr. Chan was quick to add, however: “This virus may have given us a grace period, but we do not know how long this grace period will last. No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm.” She also described H1N1 as “very contagious, and sneaky, subtle virus” that so far has affected younger people in the Northern hemisphere but could indeed mix with other viruses that circulate in the Southern Hemisphere during the winter season and thus could evolve into a more “unpredictable” situation.
During the Assembly, several WHO officials expressed thanks for the leadership exercised by Caritas Internationalis in its dissemination of Planning and Response Guidelines for Caritas organizations as the H1N1 Influenza continues to spread to different parts of the world; this guidance document can be found on the CI website at: http://www.caritas.org/includes/pdf/PandemicFlu.pdf
In an extraordinary visit to the Assembly, UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon noted the need for transparency, resilience, and solidarity, particularly during this time of financial and health crises confronting the world at the present time. He recalled that he had made global health as one of his top priorities in his service to the United Nations; he insisted that “a healthier world is a better world, a safer world, a more just world. If we fall short on health, we cannot simply go back later and pick up where we left off.” He further maintained that “there is no single issue that ties together the security, prosperity and progress of our world” more than that of women’s health.
In this latter regard, several of the health ministers also raised urgent concerns about the fact that, of all the Millennium Development goals, the one focusing on reducing maternal mortality seemed to be, in the words of the UN Secretary General, “the slowest moving target”.
Mrs. Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, also addressed this specific topic during a special guest presentation to the Assembly. She noted that she had no special professional credentials to speak about the topic but simply was sharing her concerns as a mother. She noted that 500,000 mothers die each year, mainly of preventable causes and that for every mother who dies, thirty more suffer debilitating and painful injury from pregnancy and childbirth. She noted that most causes of maternal deaths were resolved more than 100 years ago in industrialized countries but that these treatments have not yet reached the mothers in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. She spoke about how a mother’s survival can ensure that all her children, including her girl children, go to school and enjoy positive life choices and health outcomes. She urged the international community “to make sure [that] maternal mortality is a problem of the past and not [of] our children’s future.”
Many Caritas organizations are engaged in sponsoring or supporting services to reduce maternal and child mortality. One dramatic example is the emergency dispensary sponsored by Caritas Somalia in the Baidoa camp for persons fleeing from civil conflict in that country. This centre represents the only hope for professional services to pregnant women being housed at the camp. In 2007, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI designated this programme to be the recipient of the Holy Thursday collection taken at St. John Lateran Basilica, in Rome.
Another important Caritas action to prevent maternal mortality can be found in its Campaign to increase access of HIV-positive pregnant women to treatment designed to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies and to ongoing anti-retroviral treatment in order to prolong and improve the quality of life among these mothers which, in turn, ensure better health and more stable development for their children. In order to find more information about this Campaign click here.