On a recent country visit to Albania, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, signed a 2-year agreement to work together on key health issues, and met decision-makers and health workers on the COVID-19 frontline.
Following a press briefing, both Dr Kluge and Albania’s Minister of Health and Social Protection, Ms Ogerta Manastirliu, signed a new biennial collaborative agreement (BCA), setting out areas where WHO and the Albanian government can make efforts to improve the health and well-being of the population. This agreement includes: coverage of health services; maternal, child and reproductive health; tackling both communicable and noncommunicable diseases; health financing; and emergency preparedness and response, including COVID-19.
In a statement to the press, Dr Kluge said: “I encourage all efforts made towards delivering universal health coverage, including a focus on a primary health care system that is accessible, affordable and equitable. The European Programme of Work [EPW] places particular attention on 4 flagship initiatives: mental health, digitization, behavioural insights and immunization. It is encouraging to see these reflected in the strategic efforts of the Government of Albania.
“Today’s signing of our Biennial Collaborative Agreement 2021 with the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Albania is another positive step in our close work together to deliver on the commitments of the EPW, across Albania and across the WHO European Region.”
Contributing to the European Programme of Work – “United Action for Better Health”, which was agreed by European Region Member States in September 2020, this agreement seeks to strengthen the country’s National Health Strategy in line with WHO’s triple billion health goals: more people benefitting from universal health coverage, more people better protected from health emergencies and more people enjoying better health and well-being.
The signing of the BCA followed a meeting between Ms Manastirliu and Dr Kluge where they discussed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response, the country’s National Health Policy, health financing and the new primary health care strategy.
Dr Kluge commended the Government of Albania and health-care authorities for their response to COVID-19. Following the structural mechanisms put in place since January, in order to deal with the growing challenges brought by the virus, the strategy prepared for the autumn and coming winter is another positive step in the pandemic response.
As COVID-19 cases surge, Dr Kluge explained that it is vital that with WHO/Europe’s solidarity, the Albanian government continues strengthening testing and contact tracing capacity across the country, with robust case management.
Dr Kluge stressed: “like everywhere in Europe, we must redouble our efforts once again”.
Despite the challenges, Dr Kluge told the people of Albania that they are not alone. “WHO/Europe remains a steadfast partner amid this pandemic and we look forward to sustaining our close collaboration and commitment to leave no one behind.”
National Health Policy and COVID-19 response
In a meeting with Prime Minister Edi Rama, Dr Kluge spoke about the COVID-19 response and the National Health Policy, while also offering support following an earthquake last year which caused damage in the country.
Dr Kluge welcomed the proposal to increase the health budget significantly compared to 2020, while encouraging increased public investment in the health system. Universal Health Coverage (UHC) has been placed at the centre of the country’s National Health Policy – increasing UHC is a central part of “United Action for Better Health”.
In a meeting with President Ilir Meta, Dr Kluge highlighted the ongoing response to COVID-19. This offered the chance to explain the work being undertaken by WHO, as well as recognizing the efforts made by the government in protecting the health system from being overburdened earlier this year, while also preparing for future increases in COVID-19 patients.
Furthermore, Dr Kluge expressed his appreciation to Albania for participation in the Solidarity trial and COVAX facility, working towards global, equitable access to potential COVID-19 vaccines.
During the country visit, Dr Kluge visited a hospital caring for COVID-19 patients, expressing his admiration for the courage and determination of health-care workers.
“I would like to thank you for the great job that you are doing, but I would also like to thank your families because they suffer as well when you are working day and night. We have to fight the pandemic in the hospitals, but also at home, in the communities and at the primary health centres,” said Dr Kluge.
The Regional Director also thanked the health-care workers of the infectious disease department at Mother Theresa University Hospital Centre for being part of the Solidarity trial, pointing out that it is 1 of 500 hospitals worldwide which are participating in the trial. Dr Kluge emphasized that it is important to share knowledge, not only for Albania but for the whole world.
Albania has seen a scaling up of 4 health facilities as treatment centres for COVID-19, as well as increasing the salaries of health professionals who have been treating patients with the disease.
Partnerships for health
Working together with partners is an important part of delivering on the EPW.
A highlight of the visit was the meeting with the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Albania, Luigi Soreca. Common ground on strengthening health systems, stronger engagement in the Balkans, and support to the EU accession process of Albania was discussed.
During the visit, Dr Kluge also met with United Nations Resident Coordinator, Fiona McCluney, discussing joint efforts on COVID-19, elevating health on the political agenda and further strategies to support the Ministry of Health and Social Protection in Albania.
The visit also offered the opportunity to meet with the Tirana-hub of the Global Shapers network. The Global Shapers are a community of socially driven young people from across the globe who have been working with WHO/Europe to monitor rumours, address myths and share evidence-based information on COVID-19.
During this meeting, Dr Kluge highlighted the importance of young people as partners in helping stop the spread of COVID-19, including motivating peers. The need for including and listening to young people, particularly on matters of global health which directly affect them, is crucial to strengthening the work of WHO/Europe.