Year in review: 2021’s key global health moments, according to the WHO

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The pandemic might have dominated health headlines this year, but there have been lots of other stories on the World Health Organization’s global health agenda.
  • From COVID-19 and malaria vaccines to falling tobacco use, and from dementia to diabetes, these are some of the WHO’s biggest health stories of 2021.

Health topped the news agenda once more in 2021, with ‘Covid vaccine’ the number one Google News search in the UK.

But there were other big health stories throughout the year – and some you might have missed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

1. COVID-19 vaccine and inequities

More than 8.85 billion vaccination doses had been administered by Christmas 2021, and the WHO had validated 10 COVID-19 vaccines as “safe, effective and high-quality”.

But only a quarter of the health workers in Africa had been fully vaccinated, according to the WHO, showing the divide in access between the developed and developing world. Vaccines, Health and healthcare, Gavi

What is the World Economic Forum doing about access to vaccines?

In 2000, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, with an initial pledge of $750 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The aim of Gavi is to make vaccines more accessible and affordable for all – wherever people live in the world.

Along with saving an estimated 10 million lives worldwide in less than 20 years,through the vaccination of nearly 700 million children, – Gavi has most recently ensured a life-saving vaccine for Ebola.

At Davos 2016, we announced Gavi’s partnership with Merck to make the life-saving Ebola vaccine a reality.

The Ebola vaccine is the result of years of energy and commitment from Merck; the generosity of Canada’s federal government; leadership by WHO; strong support to test the vaccine from both NGOs such as MSF and the countries affected by the West Africa outbreak; and the rapid response and dedication of the DRC Minister of Health. Without these efforts, it is unlikely this vaccine would be available for several years, if at all.

Read more about the Vaccine Alliance, and how you can contribute to the improvement of access to vaccines globally – in our Impact Story.

In December, the WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “blanket booster programmes” risked prolonging the pandemic, as supplies going to rich countries meant greater opportunity for the virus to spread.

There was a huge effort to collaborate on vaccine access, led by the WHO. The ACT-Accelerator halved the cost of COVID-19 rapid tests for low- and lower-middle-income countries, while COVAX delivered more than three-quarters of a billion doses globally. https://www.youtube.com/embed/oUyG5Rfu-4w?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

2. Humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

Since August, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the country has descended into greater poverty and, besides COVID-19, diarrhoea, dengue, measles, polio, and malaria are affecting the population.

The WHO sent 414 metric tonnes of life-saving medical supplies and helped to vaccinate 8.5 million children against polio.

The country is on the brink of famine, with 98% of Afghans without enough food to eat and a million children at risk of dying from hunger as the winter sets in, according to UNICEF.

3. Universal health coverage

The pandemic is likely to stall 20 years of progress towards Universal Health Coverage, the WHO and the World Bank found.

Even before COVID-19, having to pay for health services was pushing more than half a billion people into extreme poverty.

Childhood immunizations have been disrupted during the pandemic, with 23 million children missing out on routine vaccines in 2020. Services to screen for and treat diabetes, cancer and hypertension were disrupted in more than half of countries surveyed by the WHO between June and October 2021.

“We must build health systems that are strong enough to withstand shocks, such as the next pandemic and stay on course towards universal health coverage,” urged Dr Tedros.

4. Tobacco use in decline

Fewer people are smoking.
Fewer people are smoking. Image: Statista

In November 2021, the WHO’s global tobacco trends report found the number of people using tobacco had dropped by 69 million between 2000 and 2020.

There are now 60 countries on track to meet the voluntary global target of a 30% reduction in tobacco use by 2025 – up from only 32 countries two years ago. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ThDY3Z5G4RY?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

5. Violence against women

A third of women – around 736 million – are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner, the WHO reported in March 2021.

“Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Tedros.

“But, unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”

6. Malaria vaccine

In October, the WHO recommended a malaria vaccine for children for the first time, after a successful pilot scheme in three African countries: Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

RTS,S – or Mosquirix – is a vaccine developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, which acts against P. falciparum, the most deadly malaria parasite globally, and the most prevalent in Africa.

Dr Tedros called it a “historic moment” and a “breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control”, that could save tens of thousands of lives a year.

7. Diabetes in the spotlight

To mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the life-saving diabetes medicine insulin, the WHO launched a Global Diabetes Compact in 2021 to reduce the risk of diabetes and ensure access to equitable and affordable treatment.

In November, a report showed that insulin remained out of reach for many due to high prices, low availability and few producers dominating the insulin market.

“The scientists who discovered insulin 100 years ago refused to profit from their discovery and sold the patent for just one dollar,” said Dr Tedros. “Unfortunately, that gesture of solidarity has been overtaken by a multi-billion-dollar business that has created vast access gaps.”

8. The state of dementia

By 2050, there will be 139 million people living with dementia – more than double the 55 million people living with the disease today, the WHO estimates.

But only a quarter of countries have a national strategy for supporting people with dementia and their families, the WHO reported in September.

“The world is failing people with dementia, and that hurts all of us,” said Dr Tedros. “We need concerted action to ensure that all people with dementia are able to live with the support and dignity they deserve.”

9. Health and climate change

As world leaders prepared to gather in Glasgow for COP26, the WHO launched the Global Air Quality Guidelines, to show how air pollution damages human health.

The WHO and partners also presented a Health Argument for climate action report and an open letter signed by organizations representing two-thirds of the global health workforce.

It said: “The climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. As health professionals and health workers, we recognize our ethical obligation to speak out about this rapidly growing crisis that could be far more catastrophic and enduring than the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We urge governments to live up to their responsibilities by protecting their citizens, neighbours, and future generations from the climate crisis. Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change.”

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