Keynote address by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, to the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific

Brisbane, Australia, 12 October 2017

Madam Chair, Glenys Beauchamp,
My brother Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific,
Honourable ministers, heads of delegation, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

I am very proud to be with you as Director-General for the first time.

As you know, this is my final Regional Committee meeting for this year.

During my campaign I was honoured to visit many countries, and meet many wonderful people, but it has been a unique honor to travel as Director-General, from Zimbabwe to the Maldives, Hungary, the United States, Pakistan, and now Australia.

Everywhere I have been, the hospitality has been wonderful, and I would particularly like to thank the Australian Government for the warm welcome you have given me.

But even better than friendly faces is the dedication to public health that I have witnessed in all corners of the globe.

This gives me tremendous hope. We face many formidable challenges, but the commitment and talent of so many people are the best assets we have.

And we all have a role to play.

As you know, the Western Pacific Region is home to almost 1.9 billion people – one quarter of the world’s population.

From the steppes of Mongolia to the fiords of New Zealand; from the Himalayas to the Australian outback, this is an enormous and remarkably diverse region of our planet.

The health challenges you face are equally diverse, from the ballooning epidemics of obesity, to deadly outbreaks of new viruses, and the ever-increasing health impacts of climate change.

As you know, I have recently begun an initiative to support small island developing states – many of which are in this region – to adapt to the health effects of climate change.

A few weeks ago I sent my representatives to Cook Islands to meet with representatives of the Pacific Islands, and just a fortnight ago I had a very positive meeting with the small island states in the Caribbean.

Although these islands are the least responsible for climate change, they are the most at risk. We owe it to them to do everything we can to help them prepare for the future that is already washing up on their shores.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Western Pacific Region is home to some remarkable success stories.

China’s progress in expanding health coverage to its vast population is an inspiring illustration of what is possible in even the biggest, most complex countries.

Nine out of 10 women in this region have access to modern family planning methods, the highest of all WHO regions.

Suicide rates are decreasing regionally, and especially in the Republic of Korea, thanks to the banning of a particularly lethal pesticide.

In Papua New Guinea, death and disease from malaria has dropped significantly.

And I am very pleased to be here today to celebrate the elimination of trachoma in Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Earlier this year, WHO validated both countries as having eliminated trachoma as a public health problem, after more than a decade of commitment and efforts on the part of government, donors, and WHO.

This is a remarkable public health achievement, and a great gift to the people of both nations.

I hope I will get to celebrate achievements like every time I come to WPRO!

But of course, challenges remain.

You still have an enormous burden of tuberculosis.

Alcohol consumption is increasing.

More people smoke in this region than anywhere else in the world, and although countries such as Australia are setting the standard for plain packaging, in other areas you are falling behind.

Only four countries from the Western Pacific have signed the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products: China, Fiji, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea. Only Mongolia has ratified it.

Frankly, that is embarrassing.

If we serious about tobacco control, we must walk the talk.

Another nine countries need to ratify the protocol for it to come into force by July 2018. I urge those of you who have not yet signed the protocol to sign, and those who have signed but not yet ratified the protocol to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last Saturday marked my one-hundredth day in office.

I am proud of everything we have accomplished together in the past three months.

I have advocated for universal health coverage and health security at the highest political levels, including the G20 and the UN General Assembly.

I’ve introduced a new approach to WHO’s emergency response operations, including daily briefing notes, and established a WHO Health Security Council which meets fortnightly that I chair, in which we review the status of all health emergencies globally, and how WHO is responding to them.

I have launched the process of transforming WHO to make it more focused on delivering results.

And we have appointed the largest and most diverse leadership team in WHO’s history, 60% of whom are women.

I am especially proud to have three members of my senior management team from the Western Pacific: Dr Peter Salama of Australia, Dr Naoko Yamamoto of Japan, and Dr Ren Minghui of the People’s Republic of China.

It also gives me great pleasure to announce today the appointment of Elizabeth Iro, the Secretary of Health in the Cook Islands, as Chief Nurse at WHO.

WHO leadership now looks exactly as the world looks. Elizabeth will bring valuable experience, and contribute to our efforts to ensure all countries have a fit-for-purpose health workforce. Her appointment also means the Pacific region will be represented in WHO’s senior leadership.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In my first 100 days I have met some of the richest and poorest people in our world. I have met the most powerful, and the most vulnerable.

I have listened to you, our Member States. I have listened to our staff, who I have said repeatedly are WHO’s greatest asset. I have listened to our partners. I have listened to the voice of age and experience, and I have listened to the voice of youthful enthusiasm.

And I have come to realise that the world expects WHO to do three things:

To keep the world safe, to improve health, and to serve the vulnerable. Let me repeat that: the world expects WHO to keep the world safe, to improve health, and to serve the vulnerable.

That is our mission.

And in many ways, we already do all three. But we can and must do better.

For that reason, I have taken the decision to accelerate the process of shaping the next General Programme of Work from 24 months to 12 months.

Our work is too urgent to wait. We have no time to lose.

The concept note on the new GPW has already been discussed at the other five regional committee meetings.

I have been very encouraged by the feedback we have received.

Now it’s your turn.

Shortly, you will hear more about our ideas for the next five years, and we are looking forward to getting your input.

But allow me take a few moments just to give you the outline.

The GPW describes several key priorities that will define our work in the years to come. In fact, these priorities have evolved even in the course of the regional committee meetings.

Let me summarize them like this: health coverage, health security, health SDGs.

First, WHO’s core business is to help countries progress towards universal health coverage.

WHO was founded on the conviction that health is a human right. It is a conviction I share. No one should get sick and die just because they are poor, or because they cannot access the health services they need.

WHO is not in the business of prescribing the exact steps countries must take to reach universal health coverage.

But for all countries, it must be built on the foundation of strong health systems, including primary care that delivers health services designed to meet the needs of people, not the needs of providers.

The second priority is to strengthen global health security. When an outbreak becomes an epidemic, the world looks to WHO.

We must accelerate our evolution towards being more responsive to emergencies. When disaster strikes, our partners expect us to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them on the frontlines, not shouting instructions from the side-lines.

We are on the right track. Today, we are on the ground in countries like Yemen, Bangladesh and Madagascar, delivering much-needed assistance.

Outbreaks are inevitable, but epidemics are preventable. That is why I have taken action to work with our partners – including the Wellcome Trust – to map global emergency response capacities, and global R&D capacities, in order to multiply the capacities we have.

If we are able to deploy emergency medical teams rapidly, and swiftly engage the world’s R&D machinery to develop new tests and vaccines, millions of lives can be saved.

And the third priority is to drive progress towards the SDGs. The Sustainable Development Goals will be the foundation for all our work. They are the priorities on which the world has agreed, and must also be our priorities. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

But the World Health Organization is also the custodian of several specific SDG targets, and we will focus our attention on four specific areas:
• protecting against the health impacts of climate change and environmental problems;
• improving the health of women, children and adolescents;
• ending the epidemics of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis (the big 4); and
• preventing premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases, including mental health.

And to address the enormous burden of noncommunicable diseases in this region, and all over the world, I have established a new High-Level Global Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases, to be led by Dr Sania Nishtar, which we announced from Islamabad yesterday.

In order to fulfil our mission and mandate, I believe that WHO needs to make several big shifts in the way we work. That starts from planning and the GPW is being prepared accordingly.

First, we must become far more focused on outcomes and impact. WHO must be results-oriented.

Too often we are focused simply on outputs and processes, without thinking carefully enough about whether we are truly making a difference to public health.

This must change. In order to make progress, we must be able to measure progress.

The second major shift we must make is that WHO will become more operational, especially in fragile, vulnerable and conflict areas.

I believe that WHO must be relevant in all countries. No country’s health system is perfect. There is always room for improvement. So in all countries, we will engage in regular policy dialogue to identify gaps and solutions.

In addition to policy dialogue, some countries will require our technical assistance, in the form of the practical tools, experience and know-how we offer.

A third group of countries will require policy dialogue, technical support and operational support to deliver services where nobody else will or can.

At the same time, we will continue to play our normative, standard-setting role – and indeed we will strengthen those functions.

The third shift is that we must put countries at the centre of WHO’s work. This seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Results don’t happen in Geneva or in regional offices; they happen in countries, in the frontlines. Our role is to support you, our Member States, and to enable you to strengthen your health systems, achieve universal health coverage for your people and protect against epidemics in your countries. To do that, you must be in the driver’s seat.

And fourth, WHO must provide leadership by advocating for health at the highest political levels. The importance of mobilising political commitment for health is clear to all of us. Our technical work may be excellent, but it will not bear fruit unless we engage politically to create the demand for it. A balance of technical and political interventions will bring better results.

I know, and you know, that political will is the key ingredient for change. It is not the only ingredient, but without it, change is much harder to achieve. For a paradigm shift, we need political intervention.

From the G20 in Hamburg to the General Assembly in New York last month, I have been very encouraged by the support I see for health at the highest political level.

WHO should not be shy about engaging with world leaders. Our cause is too important; the stakes are too high.

Meaningful change happens when political leaders are engaged. WHO must therefore not be afraid to go beyond the technical to the political in pursuit of its mission.

My friends,

We stand on the threshold of a new era in global health.

The SDGs give us the political mandate to drive significant change.

We are seeing unprecedented momentum for the twin priorities of universal health coverage and health security.

But the clock is ticking. We have just 13 years to keep the promises we made to the world’s people.

History will be our judge. Will our grandchildren admire our achievements? Or will they say we had a lot of meetings, and wrote a lot of reports, but didn’t achieve very much?

As I embark on my voyage as Director-General, I have never been more optimistic about the potential for the World Health Organization to make a meaningful and measurable difference.

But we cannot do it alone.

A safer, fairer and healthier world can only be realized through collaboration, cooperation, solidarity and joint action.

I especially want to thank my brother Dr Shin once again for his hospitality and leadership. I look forward to working with him and with you all to make our shared vision a reality.

Thank you so much. Xie xie. Arigatō gozaimashita. Merci beaucoup!