Speech by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, an the ceremony to commemorate WHO 50 Years in the Lao People's Democratic Republic

Don Chan Palace hotel, Vientiane
28 March 2013

Honourable Health Minister Professor Eksavang Vongvichit; Honourable ministers and ambassadors; Heads of United Nations agencies; International partners and government officials; Ladies and gentlemen:

It is an honour to participate in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the World Health Organization’s partnership with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

As the United Nations agency dedicated to health, WHO formally came into existence in 1948 on April seventh — which is the day we have celebrated World Health Day ever since.

The Lao Government joined WHO in May 1950 and a WHO Country Liaison Office was first established in 1962, located in the Mahosot Hospital Complex near the Mekong River with about 20 staff.

Since then, we have worked together to accomplish impressive advances in the health of the Lao people.

Now the WHO Lao office has about 60 international and national staff, working on a wide range of health challenges. Our engagement with the community and international partners and donors has grown exponentially.

And so has the country.

The population has tripled to more than 6 million people. Meanwhile, life expectancy at birth — a good measure of overall quality of life — has increased from 55 years to 64 years for men and from 55 years to 67 years for women between 1995 and 2010.

It is an incredible accomplishment.

Many of the health victories here — as in the rest of the world — have been through prevention of disease, largely though immunization.

The Expanded Programme on Immunization started in the country in 1974 with the global campaign to eradicate smallpox. Global eradication was achieved in 1979 — a date that still shines as one of our proudest moments.

Smallpox was the first of a string of successes in fighting vaccine-preventable diseases in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

The country has remained polio free since 1996.

The number of measles cases declined by 98 percent from 2007 to a mere 32 cases in 2012.

Considerable progress has also been made towards eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus and controlling hepatitis B.

Working together, WHO and the Lao People's Democratic Republic have made a habit of achievement.

WHO and the Government started a special programme on HIV/AIDS in 1987.

Now, there are eight antiretroviral centres benefiting more than 2000 patients.

The National Tuberculosis Programme was launched in 1995 with WHO support.

In 2005, the country reached the target of achieving detection of 70% of cases and successfully treating 85% of those.

In 2011, the first-ever national tuberculosis prevalence survey was completed in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Now the trend is declining, and the country is on track to achieve the MDG target of halving the prevalence of TB by 2015.

Reductions in maternal and infant mortality rates have been recorded since Safe Motherhood initiatives started in 1998.

Last year — to accelerate progress on MDGs 4 and 5 — the Lao Government endorsed a policy calling for free maternal, neonatal and child health-care service.

Development partners — including WHO, the World Bank, Luxembourg Development, GAVI and others — teamed up to supplement the Government's resources and make this life-saving measure a reality across the country.

And once again, effective collaboration was the key.

Collaboration has also helped us address one of the country's most enduring health threats and one that affects children disproportionately — malaria.

The Roll Back Malaria initiative was launched in 1999 in four Mekong countries.

As a result, malaria cases in the Lao People's Democratic Republic dropped more than 50% in the last decade — despite conditions that make malaria harder than ever to control.

Still, we have a long way to go in the fight against malaria.

But our chances for success have never been better… because the Lao–WHO relationship has never been stronger.

That relationship means that collaboration runs more smoothly than ever and information is shared in real time to support global health information networks.

A critical test came when International Health Regulations (2005) entered into force in June 2007.

It takes a concerted push, and the Lao Government is committed to meet the core capacities required.

The country demonstrated its improved capacity to respond to public health emergencies in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic.

Its contributions to global information-sharing were significant.

I have mentioned only a few high points in our shared history, however there are many more that can show our successes and the quality of our collaboration.

For WHO, it has been — and continues to be — an honour to be part of the mission of bringing together partners and know-how to help improve the well-being of the Lao people.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the leadership and commitment of the Lao Government and the Lao people — especially the dedicated health workers who made everything happen.

These elements are essential in the Government's commendable drive to achieve MDGs by 2015 and achieve universal health coverage for the people by 2025, a goal that cannot be achieved without improvements in the health system overall.

Political commitment alone is not sufficient, and require to be complemented by concerted efforts in strengthening service delivery at the community and district-levels, ensuring the availability of appropriate facilities and adequately trained health worker where and when those are most needed.

Many health challenges still confront the country — some of which are even consequences of successful economic development.

But the momentum of achievement — history, if you will — is on our side.

As such, I am confident that the future will bring even greater victories to promote health and well-being for the Lao people.

And as always, WHO stands ready to assist at every step of the way — committed to working with the Lao People's Democratic Republic to achieve its health goals.

Thank you.