New WMA President Urges Physicians to Advocate for the Poor


(18.10.2013) The need for national medical associations to advocate on behalf of the poor has been emphasised by Dr. Margaret Mungherera in her inaugural speech as the new President of the World Medical Association.

Speaking at the WMA's annual Assembly in Fortaleza, Brazil, Dr. Mungherera, a psychiatrist from Uganda, said: ‘Almost half of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. National medical associations must therefore advocate on behalf of the poor among us, because as the famous adage goes “If you miss the poor, you've missed the point”.

‘And there is no part of the globe that does not have poor people, people who cannot access health care, mentally ill people who are discriminated against, people who fall victim to torture. As physicians, we have been given the privilege to do something about it. And we can do so as individual physicians but we can do even better through organized medicine, as NMAs and as the World Medical Association.'

Dr. Mungherera, the first African woman to hold the post of WMA President, said that one part of the world where the WMA needed to be more active was Africa. 

'Out of the 12 or so countries in the world experiencing war, seven of them are in Africa. Furthermore, none of the South Saharan African countries will meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Yet only 15 out of the 53 countries have their NMAs as members of the WMA. 

‘The problem of Africa is not lack of resources or goodwill. It is lack of leadership in the health sectors. Physicians in Africa need to be able to provide the type of leadership that is needed.'

Dr. Mungherera said that in an effort to build that leadership capacity of NMAs in Africa, the WMA would hold four regional forums in Africa. The first, next month, would be hosted by the medical associations of Kenya, Ghana, Tunisia and South Africa. The aim would be to allow NMAs in Africa to share experiences, encourage those not members to join WMA. It would also allow partnerships and twinning between them and other more established NMAs outside Africa.

She said that during her Presidential year she had chosen to focus on non communicable diseases, maternal health and mental health. These were issues which in many areas of the world, especially the poor countries, had very little resources allocated to them.

She appealed to national medical associations to advocate for five strategies where she said not enough was being done. These were evidence based practice; engendering health; preventive medicine; having an adequate, skilled and motivated health workforce; networking and partnerships, especially with sectors outside the health sector in addressing social determinants of health such as tobacco and poor sanitation. 

She also said that national medical associations needed to speak out boldly on the issue of physicians and other health care workers being threatened in areas of conflict.

The WMA was working in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross on the “Healthcare in Danger” project, supporting medical associations in countries experiencing war. Physicians could play a significant role in minimizing the suffering of their patients and their families. 

‘Yet these physicians and other health workers are being threatened, injured or killed. In addition, health care facilities are being destroyed and equipment and other supplies looted. This is happening in Syria, Iran, Somalia, Pakistan and six or more other countries where there is war. In such cases, NMAs must come out to not only boldly speak out but to be proactive in ensuring that patients have access to health care. They must be active in peace advocacy program, raising awareness about the effects of war. NMAs have a responsibility to support physicians in overcoming ethical challenges.'