Speech by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, at World Health Summit Regional Meeting

SINGAPORE, 9 April 2013

Honourable panellists,
Distinguished participants and guests:

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to participate in this panel on health policy in sustainable development in Asia. This topic is a cornerstone of our work at the World Health Organization.

More than a decade ago, the world's governments came together to set the Millennium Development Goals. Since then, Asia and the Pacific have made tremendous progress in health, education and poverty reduction.

Governments have seen that investments in social sectors — particularly health and education — have paid huge dividends in productivity and overall socioeconomic development.

A recent study published in The Lancet shows that an increase of just one year in the life expectancy of a healthy population can increase a country's GDP by as much as 4%.

Indeed, better health is one of the best investments governments can make for economic development.

Many one-time low-income countries are now middle-income, and even more will make the jump in the next decade.

But rapid development comes at a price. We see the downside of population growth, urbanization and pollution every day.

These factors negatively affect health overall and hit the poor especially hard. Uneven distribution of resources further widens this divide in health between rich and poor.

When governments do not invest enough in health, services become inadequate or expensive. Either way, access declines. Underfunding of the health sector has made out-of-pocket payments to health providers as high as 60% of the total health expenditure in some countries.

High pays often mean no care or no food or no education. Paying to care for a loved one pushes many families over a cliff of poverty, from which they never recover.

We can start to address disparities by ensuring that any solution reduces out-of-pocket payments to a level people can afford. The demand for affordable health services already outstrips capacity. This situation will worsen with the growing elderly population and the surge of NCDs in the Region.

Many noncommunicable diseases — such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes —require costly long-term care. These growing needs will require tremendous increases in resources.

Quality and efficiency of services must be improved to maximize the impact of every dollar, dong, yen or peso invested. As such, programmes should focus on proven cost-effective interventions and steps to expand access to health services — especially for poor and vulnerable groups.

While NCDs remain the leading cause of death in the Region, many countries still battle communicable diseases — such as TB, malaria and increasingly dengue fever.

The growing resistance to artemisinin as a malaria treatment — and the emergence of multidrug-resistant TB strains — are indeed frightful threats to health.

We must address antimicrobial resistance. Perhaps more than any other issue, it highlights the necessity of controlling the quality and rational use of drugs in the health and agricultural sectors.

Other ways to protect development gains include sustainable plans and policies for prevention and response to health emergencies, outbreaks and epidemics.

This is especially true in our Region. SARS, H1N1, avian influenza — and the newly detected H7N9 virus in humans — all started here.

Outbreaks or epidemics can cripple economic development. They can close down farms, factories and borders, reducing international trade and tourism overnight.

SARS woke up the world to the threat of pandemics.

Donors and stakeholders then enthusiastically supported WHO in developing systems for early detection and response to outbreaks.

Now — 10 years later — support is waning, making it difficult to maintain vigilance against future outbreaks.

The current H7N9 virus threat should be a wake up call for the need to keep vigilance strong.

The key to preparedness — like many public health issues — is ensuring that strategies and solutions are collaborative and multisectoral.

The ill effects of urbanization and lifestyle choices that cause noncommunicable disease must be addressed by multisectoral policies.

Whether the solution is promoting healthy cities — or getting people to use less salt or quit smoking or wear helmets — sectors outside of health need to be involved in making policy work.

Leaders across the Region have been wrestling with many of the challenges I've mentioned here.

Many have found a solution in universal health coverage.

Universal health coverage is built on the premise that health is a public good, and that investment in this public good boosts overall socioeconomic development.

Universal coverage is defined simply as providing quality health services that people need at prices everyone can afford.

As the 2015 MDG deadline approaches, universal health coverage figures prominently in the debate on sustainable development.

Most countries in the Region already include universal coverage in their national health policies and plans. But they still need to make the concept more operational.

There are steps we can take to support universal coverage and promote greater equity in the Region.

First, we should expand partnerships between government and nongovernmental groups with the private sector, civil society and academia to polish rollout plans for universal health coverage.

This will also help increase professional capacities in health policy and service management for quality and efficiency.

What's more, greater collaboration ensures that lessons learnt in countries such as Singapore, Japan and Korea can help guide others.

Investments in health have lead to better and more equitable health outcomes in these countries.

Better health, in turn, increased productivity and socioeconomic development.

This productive dynamic also strengthened the solidarity and trust in the relationship between the people and their government in these countries.

The road to universal health coverage starts with the realization that health is not a luxury.

It is a basic right… a public good… and one of the most cost-effective investments in development a country can make.

History has shown us that once people are healthy, the journey to wealthy is much faster.

Thank you again for inviting me to participate.

I look forward to hearing your ideas.